Regular guest Irene has provided this wonderful account of her cruise with us last month:
‘OVER THE SEA TO SKYE’… & THE SMALL ISLES
22ND TO 28TH AUGUST 2015
Saturday 22nd August – a quality anchorage
Sunshine greeted everyone as we gathered aboard HB. It really does lift the spirits as you drive onto the North Pier to drop your bags and see the old girl moored alongside – not least because it means an easier boarding if she is! We left Oban early and headed up the Sound, enjoying the scenery and starting the process of getting to know our fellow inmates and re-finding our sea legs.
It proved a nice mix of newbies and repeat offenders on this trip, who proved an interesting bunch of characters with the requisite wacky sense of humour – always handy on HB to have a fair quota of hooligans on board. We also seemed to have a bevy of Marks and Richards aboard – two of each. On the crew side, Mark I and Mark II (the software upgrade?) and Richard I and Richard II representing the passengers, and it was good to see Seven again and, of course, Anna keeping the boys in order.
It was my third trip on HB and amazingly, Mark’s still letting me back on board! For me personally, it was great that some of the passengers this time included the ‘Norfolk Four’ (Janice and Richard, LJ and Steve) who I first met on the long St Kilda cruise last year (I drove 500 miles from home in Norfolk and the first voice I heard then had a Norfolk accent!). We became firm friends on that trip and have remained in touch ever since. The nice thing about trips on HB is that you form friendships which last well beyond the trip.
The sun shone as we headed up a flat calm Sound of Mull, accompanied by Black Guillemots, the first of many squadrons of ‘ordinary’ Guillemots and plunge diving Gannets and Richard the First started as he meant to go on by facing the wrong way and managing to miss the plunge.
Our first overnight stop was a new destination for me and it was a cracker – in a wonderfully sheltered inlet on Loch Droma Buidhe (Loch of the Yellow Hill), on the southern side of Loch Sunart and tucked under the island of Oronsay. Most of us heard this as Drambuie which gives away where our minds were focused most of the time.
As the evening progressed after the first of many splendid dinners by Mark II, the water flattened completely and we were treated to mirror calm reflections as the sun went down – the sunset of the season according to the skipper but then I expect he says that to all the passengers… But after two long days of travelling, the bustle of getting parked, bestowing bags and unpacking, it was a wonderfully relaxing and tranquil first evening which set the tone for the rest of the trip.
Sunday 23rd August – a roaster of a day
An otter fishing before breakfast was not a bad way to start the morning. Sharing our overnight mooring had been the Bessie Ellen, one of the last remaining wooden trading ketches still under sail, now offering sailing holidays. Built in Plymouth in 1904 she made a fine sight at anchor next to us overnight. We watched their crew making ready to sail the next morning – and not wanting to denigrate the hard work of our crew (and not something I’d dare to do in the skipper’s hearing anyway or he’d throw me overboard), the Bessie Ellen looked like a hard slog to make ready, even in calm conditions as Anna pointed out.
Plans hatched the night before to land us ashore at Loch Drumbuie had seemed like a good idea at the time when it was sunny and calm. As the day had dawned with increasing rain, it didn’t take long for us all to have what Mark aptly called an ‘enthusiasm crisis’ and we chickened out on Plan A which had been to go ashore and go for a walk up the hill to the abandoned village of Sornagan. Plan B however turned out to be a terrific option as we headed out along the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, emerging from the rain as we rounded the lighthouse on the Point.
More plunge diving Gannets accompanied us and it was an apt demonstration of how fast these birds can be that Richard I managed to capture shots of the birds just above the water, but even at 10 frames a second, the next shot was nearly always the water surface after the Gannet had dived – not at the point of impact. No surprise I suppose when Gannets can reach 60mph in their plunge dives and are supremely adapted for such hardcore diving, with no external nostrils and air sacs in the face and neck which act as nature’s bubble wrap to cushion against injury.
Stunning views of Eigg and Rum accompanied us as we headed north past the mainland, enjoying different perspectives on hills I’d only ever seen from land, and the geology was clearly too much excitement for LJ who retreated to her usual spot in the rib for a mid-morning snooze. The rest of the passengers started to get the feel for being on HB. Janice, trying out a relief wristband to ward off seasickness (successfully I’m delighted to add), spent some of the morning experimenting with the settings, nearly giving herself an electric shock in the process – I expected to see her hair start curling any minute.
The variety of seabirds increased as we headed for the Sound of Sleat, with Bonxies making their presence felt as we sailed past Mallaig on one side and the Sleat peninsula on the other, described in a good old tourist industry soundbite as the Garden of Skye. It was good to see the whole area in sunshine – the last journey I made past here having been in heavy rain in May, also on HB.
As the sky cleared, the easterly wind increased as the day went on and it took a bit of getting used to for those of us from Norfolk expecting the usual cold easterly that hits our coast straight from Siberia which means you need every layer you can get your hands on. Here, an easterly off the land meant a day that got progressively hotter and by late afternoon was fairly roasting.
We had the first of many delicious lunches and this one on the hoof as we headed for the sea loch of Loch Nevis with the Rough Bounds of Knoydart to the north and the equally wild Morar to the south. The approach down Loch Nevis was simply breathtaking, with the hills looming over the village, clear sky and light bouncing off the water. We moored for the rest of that day and overnight at Inverie, one of the remotest inhabited settlements in the UK, access being only by ferry or on foot.
We all headed ashore after lunch for the afternoon, some of us choosing to walk to the long beach and pootle about on the shoreline by the campsite. Although I’m led to believe that the boys got somewhat distracted by ‘helping’ a scantily clad German girl at the campsite… or that was the story they fed us later. And amazingly the Norfolk Four managed to end up in the pub… they’re like homing pigeons.
Jack and Aileen explored further afield to the Brocket monument and I walked back from the beach and up through the shade of the trees above the village on the lower slopes of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean, and even without having time to do the full thing, the view from even a modest height was stunning. The sun, as well as being buzzed by Golden-ringed Dragonflies, meant plenty of excuses to stop and soak up the scenery and wildlife.
By the time we all gathered back aboard HB again, the heat meant beer before dinner was very welcome. Sitting with mine at the new table at the bow was almost a first too as the weather on the May Shiants trip hadn’t really permitted such lazing about and certainly not up at the ‘pointy end’.
That evening after dinner, we all managed to thoroughly embarrass Mark with a birthday cake but despite the numerous alcoholic inducements on offer, he declined to confess to how many birthdays he’d had, which can only mean that the Ancient Mariner has started counting backwards – like the rest of us!
Monday 24th August – Skye, geology’s G-spot
An interesting conversation with Mark before breakfast on the challenges of living and working in such a remote community, along with the problems of power generation in such rural areas, was a thoughtful start to the day. So although Knoydart thankfully may not have crowds, noise or traffic, it seems that local politics and the problems of creating a sustainable living which goes beyond just the holidaying population still apply.
The ever changing light on the hills as we ate breakfast took our minds off the midgey start, but we soon left those monsters behind as the breeze increased when we left Inverie, heading back past Mallaig and round the Sleat Peninsula with Knoydart looking splendid in the sunshine behind us. However, we were soon well and truly distracted by the panorama ahead. We’d had glimpses of the Cuillins as we sailed down the Sound of Sleat but it was nothing compared to the view which opened out as we rounded the headland.
The day was gloriously sunny with crystal clear visibility and arrayed in front of us was the full length of the Black Cuillins, Blà Bheinn and the Red Cuillins all in one wide sweep of the horizon. One of the best things about viewing Scotland from the sea (and for me one of the main reasons I love trips on HB) is that you get views and angles on the hills that you simply can’t get very easily from land, if at all.
As we sailed closer, it was fascinating talking to Jack whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the hills helped identify the peaks near and far. The geology as we approached would be hard to beat anywhere and it became positively orgasmic as the cliffs loomed over the boat, the gabbro of the Black Cuillins contrasting with the granite of the appropriately named Red Cuillins, with folds of basalt thrown into mix.
As we sailed finally into Loch Scavaig, it was done with a lot more ease and more quickly than can be accomplished by taking the usual path from Elgol and from the boat you also miss out the Bad Step… not to mention you’ve still got some fuel left in your personal tank when you get to the landing spot for Loch Coruisk. It felt like we’d slipped into the Cuillins by the backdoor.
Common Seals and Ravens greeted us as we anchored and the rib dumped us at the usual ladder landing at the foot of what must be one of the shortest rivers in Scotland, the Scavaig, which leaves Loch Coruisk and after only a few hundred yards discharges into Loch Scavaig. We only had about an hour ashore as the wind was backing and Mark didn’t want to stay in the anchorage too long. So with his detailed route instructions of ‘follow Jack’ ringing in our ears, most of us did just that and headed up round the corner to Loch Coriusk where yet another full spread of the Black Cuillins opened up in front. With terminal moraines all around us, the striations on the rocks were also a testament to the scouring pad properties of past glaciation and the basalt folds and dykes evidence of an equally violent volcanic past.
The top of the ridge was wreathed in cloud to start with, offering tantalising glimpses of the jagged rocks. If you could tear your eyes away from the hills, the flora proved equally interesting with Cross-leaved Heath, Stonecrop and the last few yellow spikes of Bog Asphodel still in flower. The black gabbro rock was a pleasure to walk on – nice and grippy for the boots. Although Jack had just finished demonstrating how grippy it was by standing perfectly balanced at almost a 90 degree angle on a rock only to step off it onto the peat path where he promptly took a nosedive.
The local boats had obviously been dropping off a steady stream of passengers all morning so the area around the landing and the waterfalls was fairly busy with people, but it still didn’t detract from the stunning scenery.
The plan after lunch was an afternoon run to the sparsely populated island of Soay (from Old Norse meaning sheep island), which lies in the shadow of Skye and a heck of a shadow it is. As we sailed down the narrow stretch of water between Soay and Skye, it was hard to take your eyes off the rock architecture on our right and pay attention to the lower slopes of Soay on the left. Part of the drama of the Black Cuillin is enhanced by rising almost straight out of the sea and it overwhelms the view from many angles.
Soay saw only half the passengers land ashore for the afternoon and those of us who did, spent most of the time on the move trying to outrun the mighty midge horde, so those on board probably did the wisest thing. For once there wasn’t a breath of wind so the midges were fairly lively, to say the least. As we all headed in different directions, those watching from the boat must have seen a few variations on the Highland Fling as we windmilled our way across the island, and Richard I may have fared slightly better than the rest of us from behind his sensible midge net. Jack and Aileen walked to the southern side to Camas nan Gall, while Nigel and Sue aimed for the high point of Beinn Bhreac, and Richard I and Steve and I tried various different hummocks and high spots, chasing the elusive breeze.
Mark landed us right by the old shark factory in Soay Harbour, where the somewhat incongruous remains of the locomotive boiler and firebox mark the spot of the factory’s steam plant. It’s understandable, given the history of the place, how some might now view Gavin Maxwell with some ambiguity and it is hard to reconcile these early times with his conservationist stance in later years.
Maxwell bought the island in the late 1940s and established a shark factory to process oil from Basking Sharks. The slaughter must have been truly horrific as by the early 1950s, numbers had declined so drastically that the factory failed and shark numbers are still recovering, not only from this but other factors which have influenced their numbers over the years.
A sustainable life on these islands was always tenuous and earning a living must have been difficult. It’s unclear if the closing of the factory influenced this decision or if it had always been on the cards but in a mirror of what happened on St Kilda, though less well-known today, the islanders petitioned the government for evacuation and in 1953 the 30 or so inhabitants were resettled on Mull.
Peter and Richard the Second stayed aboard and continued their family grudge cribbage match – the odds at stake? The loser pays the bar bill for them both. We tried to persuade them to up the stakes just to make it more cutthroat, with the winner paying everyone’s bar bill but oddly enough, neither brother seemed keen on the idea, especially Richard II who happened to be trailing behind by this stage.
Our late afternoon sail to Canna left the midges behind in the breeze and much time was spent on deck enjoying the crystal clear visibility and with Mark’s help, identifying every distant speck on the horizon, with clear views even as far as the Uists. It was wonderful to be heading back to Canna again. I’d first visited the island last year on the Kilda trip and was very taken with the whole island.
For years I’d almost dismissed Canna as this flat ‘thing’ on the end of the Small Isles and thought it would be overshadowed by the more spectacular Rum and Eigg but it’s one of the most peaceful spots we visited.
This time we anchored in the village bay for our overnight stop and were treated to a colourful sunset as we enjoyed yet another of Mark II’s dinners, followed by cheese which none of us really had room for but we made a valiant effort to join the skipper in demolishing it, purely in the spirit of solidarity.
Tuesday 25th August – canny Canna with side helpings of dolphins and minke
A full day on Canna and once again the weather was kind to us. Jack, Aileen, Nigel and Sue headed for a longer walk to the western end of the island while I took the opportunity to repeat a walk up Compass Hill and over the heath along the northern side of the island. Perched on a high point for my packed lunch, it was a tremendously peaceful spot and it was hard to tear myself away. The orchid show from earlier in the year was now past its best but the Devil’s Bit Scabious added an extra shade of purple to the heather already carpeting the plateau.
Most of the seabird colonies had left the cliffs but raptors were much in evidence, including both eagles plus Hen Harrier and family parties of Ravens showing off their acrobatic flying skills. Smaller birds such as Twite and Rock Pipit fed along the weed-strewn shoreline. Although the rarest sighting was earlier in the day, with Richard I taking a cup of tea to Janice in bed – he then proceeded to tell everyone on board about this amazing feat and no doubt everyone on shore also knew by the end of the day.
Dropping down through the abandoned settlement, I walked slowly back along the southern shoreline overlooking Sanday until I reached the village where, strangely, I found the Norfolk Four at yet another eaterie, the café by the shore after their labours on the beach at Sanday.
A late afternoon run to our intended overnight anchorage at Rum carved more of a zig-zag course as Mark took us over to the area where White-beaked Dolphins had been seen earlier and where several ribs out on day trips from Elgol were gathered. Sure enough, as soon as HB appeared, the dolphins left the ribs and headed straight for us – they obviously know a quality vessel when they see one but it really is uncanny how they do that and I’m very thankful they do. Hanging with your head over the bow mere feet from bow-riding dolphins has got to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on anywhere.
As we resumed our course to Rum, the wind dropped almost completely, the sea calmed and the visibility improved, lending the whole scene an almost surreal bluey-silvery sheen – both sea and hills almost merging. Red Deer were spotted on the shore of Rum as we sailed past and the island impressed all the more as we sailed close to its shoreline, the mountains and corries looming above us.
We could see rafts of Manx Shearwaters gathering offshore from Rum and scattered amongst them were parties of Guillemots and Janice’s sharp eyes picked out the bulkier shapes of Razorbills dotted here and there. And as if that wasn’t enough excitement, we were treated to a Minke Whale on a feeding circuit not far from the boat. A first for me to get such good views and a highlight of the day, if not the trip, was hearing it ‘blow’ as it surfaced – the air so still and calm you could hear it quite clearly.
The skipper cut the engine and we drifted in the kind of silence you don’t expect at sea. He also silenced the generator, cutting Mark II off in mid dinner preparations (not that you’d have known it from the excellent meal which landed on the table later). It was a truly magical moment and I’m sure I’ll be using it as a stress buster from time to time by just conjuring it up again in my mind’s eye.
Once we reached our sheltered anchorage at Loch Scresort on the eastern side of Rum, dinner that night included the hand-dived scallops caught earlier by Mark and Anna. A fitting hello from Rum was the otter that greeted us as we anchored just off the pier, plus several Black Guillemots – some still in summer plumage and some already moulted into their winter whites. Another fine sunset behind the hills was an apt end to a simply superb day.
Wednesday 26th August – a Rum do and a Minke morning
We had a repeat of Sunday’s enthusiasm crisis this morning when the fine evening of yesterday and grand plans for dashing about on the hills vanished in the morning murk of both hill fog and rain. With some cajoling, most of us were deposited onshore by Mark so we could get very wet. Richard II and Peter stayed on board to continue their cribbage tournament, with Peter looking far too cheerful for his brother’s liking after he stormed ahead yesterday. Clearly the cake in the Canna café had put some zing into Peter’s game.
Having only ever seen Rum from a distance from Mull or sailed past it in HB, it was great to be landing for the first time, albeit in less than ideal weather. As with all HB landings, it just gives you a great taster and you leave with an urge to come back and explore further and do each island justice.
Rum has its own ‘Cuillins’ which are formed from the core of an ancient volcano. We passed the Torridonian sandstones on the north and eastern side of the island on our approach yesterday, and later we were to sail past the ancient caldera where its layered nature can still be seen in the mountains of Hallival and Askival.
The whole island was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1957 and while that is managed by SNH, the land in and around the village area are now in a Community Trust ownership. Rum was also the site of the first phase of the reintroduction programme of White-tailed Eagles when 82 juveniles from Norway were released between 1975 and 1985, and this year saw the establishment of the species’ 100th territory on Orkney.
As well as being home to both flavours of eagles, Rum also shelters what must be one of the most studied populations of Red Deer in the country. The sheep and cattle have also been removed and natural regeneration of the vegetation is being encouraged. Rum holds one of the largest breeding colonies of Manx Shearwaters in the world, with over 60,000 pairs nesting in burrows near the summits of the highest mountains.
The Shearwaters spend the winter off the coast of South America before returning to usually the same burrow in late March. As we saw on our voyage, they form feeding rafts offshore and only return to the colony under cover of darkness as a protection from predation. A single egg is laid in May and the chick is fed until September when the parents leave and not only does the chick have to make its own way to the sea from the nesting burrow but then has to migrate south for the first time – an astonishing feat of navigation and migration which blows my tiny mind every time I think about it.
Most of our landing party walked along the road into the village and to Kinloch Castle but could only manage an exterior look as it wasn’t open during the time we were there. I headed uphill in search of a view and some anti-midge breeze, both of which I found in brief respites from the rain.
Later, walking along to the otter hide under cover of the trees was where I found the Norfolk Four watching a Red-throated Diver. Steven proudly showed me a cracking shot of an otter which they’d allegedly seen, which I fell for completely until it later transpired that he’d taken a photograph of a postcard as otters were conspicuous by their absence that morning. The trouble is with all the photos he later took, once a ‘boy cries wolf’ like that…
It was hammering down by the time the Calmac ferry arrived to disgorge its load of passengers and baggage, by which time we were also all sheltering at the pier. LJ and Janice were sensibly hiding under midge nets too, which the rest of us eyed enviously but before serious money could change hands or they could get mugged for them, eventually Mark took pity on us and came ashore in the rib to retrieve us.
In depositing wet clothing, I sadly missed Mark’s attempt knock Anna overboard using the rib as a giant ping-pong bat. As she later pointed out, the safety briefing where we’re supposed to shout ‘(wo)man overboard’ must have fallen on deaf ears because instead of doing just that, everybody laughed. Although I’m not sure that Mark’s ‘what are you doing?’ comment to Anna qualifies as appropriately sympathetic either in the circumstances! He clearly needs to work on his husbandly sympathy technique if he’s not to end up in the sea himself or in the doghouse…
With gales from the south west forecast for later, our options were running out for continuing to linger around the Small Isles but we left Rum after lunch with the aim of calling in at Muck before heading for an overnight anchorage in good old sheltered Tobermory. However, not one but two Minkes had other ideas as they greeted us when we left Rum, so we lingered offshore to enjoy the experience while we could, the rain ending and the sun coming out also lifting spirits.
Although I wasn’t prepared for how close a view we’d get – standing between the two Richards contemplating the distant view we’d just had, we were a bit stunned when a Minke surfaced pretty much alongside the boat. I was rendered temporarily speechless (no mean feat) and only managed a goldfish impersonation as all I could do was gape and point. We had superb views as it circled the boat, the battery of camera motor drives going off punctuated by Richard II’s triumphant cry of, ‘blimey, I might have got that.’
The smallest of the baleen whales found in UK waters, Minkes can nevertheless reach 7-10 metres when fully grown, although you’re lucky if you see more than a fraction of the animal above the water. The usual view is of a rolling sloping back and a relatively small dorsal fin but we were lucky with a quick view of the narrow pointed head as it checked us out as it approached the boat. By the time we’d lingered for the Minkes and headed on a slow passage from Rum to Muck in prime Basking Shark waters, we didn’t have enough time for actually landing on Muck and sadly we were also unlucky with sharks.
Although the wind was picking up, the sun was still shining and it was a stunning passage from the Small Isles back round Ardnamurchan Point and into the Sound of Mull – Nigel taking advantage of the sun and pretty much everyone on deck to charge around and take some shots for the blog. We entered the shelter of the Sound and made our way alongside the cliffs where a White-tailed Sea Eagle stood sentinel before reaching Tobermory. Mark managed to get HB onto the pontoons so we could all come and go as we pleased.
An excellent excuse for another cake tonight was Shirley’s 70th birthday the next day. Full to bursting, some of us still managed cheese after the cake, although Sue was keeping a careful eye on Nigel’s cheese intake. However, I suspect the damage may well have been done already by then as we were all feeling the onset of that strange on-board malady which seems to take hold about halfway in – it’s uncanny the way that trousers just seem to shrink rapidly around the waistline area.
Thursday 27th August – raptor finale
Overnight rain lingered throughout the morning, together with strong south westerly winds – as always with Tobermory, you could see the clouds scudding overhead at warp speed but in the bay, it’s always sheltered from pretty much any westerly element to the wind.
We spent the morning in Tobermory, some of us going for a walk into Aros Park via the waterfalls and others wandering around town. I was left unsupervised and ended up in the bookshop – I’m never quite sure how that happens… After lunch, we headed down the Sound of Mull and hung a right once past Duart Castle where another sea eagle greeted us from a shore-side perch, its silhouette unmistakable as we sailed closer.
Another first for me was seeing and entering from the sea one of my favourite places on Mull – Croggan and Loch Spelve, and again a real treat to see all this from the water as opposed to just the shoreline or the neighbouring hills. We headed past the isolated and sparse hamlet of Croggan, reached at the end of a long and rough single track road by anyone on land. Sailing in front of the slopes of Ardura, we passed the Inverlussa Mussel Farm to anchor off the northern side of Carn Ban.
This being Mull, it wasn’t long before we had both Golden Eagles and another White-tailed Eagle in view at the same time, with the added distractions of Hen Harriers quartering the slopes above us. With other raptors such as Kestrel and Sparrowhawk in evidence, and cries of Hen Harrier and eagle from opposite sides of the boat, Richard I didn’t know which way to turn and managed to miss both, losing both the plot and his marbles somewhere along the way no doubt.
By lucky chance, both Richard the First and I had our telescopes up on deck when a male Hen Harrier was spotted – all the previous harriers having been Ringtails which are equally spectacular in their own right but there is something very special about a ghostly pale grey male Hen Harrier, pure elegance on the wing. He proceeded to quarter the slopes and then surprised us all by perching on a rock for quite some time, giving superb views in the late afternoon sunshine… so much so that Anna had to virtually drag us inside for dinner. As Shirley said later, it’s not every day you have two eagles and so many other special birds on your birthday.
The grand cribbage tournament came to an end this evening with Peter a worthy winner at 6-3. Given that Richard II had probably drunk most of the wine during the trip anyway, it somehow seemed fitting that he should end up with the bar bill.
Friday 28th August – where did the week go?
It was hard to believe the week had flown past so quickly so we were all on deck to savour the final views of Loch Spelve and our exit from the Croggan Narrows for the crossing back towards Oban, Mark again taking a new route for me straight across to the Sound of Kerrera to approach Oban from the south.
Space by the North Pier allowed us to moor in a good spot and while Mark II and Anna slaved over our final brunch, we managed to get in a good bit of heckling as we watched another vessel mooring alongside, making what our skipper described as a ‘right horlicks’ of it.
It was an enjoyable final meal together and the banter and conversation flowed as easily as it had done all week as we relieved the highlights of the trip, although Richard II did look a trifle pale around the gills after his open wallet surgery. As we unloaded the bags onto the North Pier, the skipper and LJ decided to have an impromptu whistling lesson, as you do.
As we went our separate ways (some still on holiday, with the Norfolk Four heading for a week on Mull and me for a week on Holy Island in Northumbria where I met up with another friend met on HB in May, Glynis), it was good to reflect on another wonderful trip – new places seen, cracking anchorages, incredible scenery, good company, excellent food and a ‘not too shabby’(!) skipper and crew, especially Seven, and a forecast which threatened bad weather but fortunately never really delivered and enabled us to have sunshine and time ashore every single day. See you next June for North Rona!
(Photos by Nigel Spencer and Mark Henrys)
DID YOU KNOW?
The first signs of habitation on Hirta (the largest island in the St Kilda archipelago and the only one you can really land on) are thought to have occurred c. 600 AD.