Hjalmar Bjorge – Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise – May 20 to 29, 2017
At the end of last month, Marc Calhoun led a guided cruise to some of his favourite places in the Western Isles. Here’s Marc’s account of the cruise, along with his photos (and a link to Alan’s drone footage of the Flannans). Thanks Marc – we look forward to next year’s cruise!
Day 1: Off to Tobermory
Twelve passengers joined Hjalmar Bjorge on May 20 for a nine day cruise around the Hebrides: Alan & Jacky, Janet & Tom, Adam & Margaret, Alan & Katherine, Hazel, Liz, Michael, and William. The crew: Skipper Mark, Anna, cook Mark, and guide Marc (a lot of Marks). Also aboard were some drones, more on that, later. We did not know it at the time, but over the coming days we’d visit eleven islands. After the safety briefing we departed Oban to head for Tobermory for the night, where several guests enjoyed a stroll in town before settling in for the first night.
Day 2: Eigg and Rum
Our intent was to head west to Mingulay, but the prevailing winds ruled that out, so after passing Ardnamurchan Point we set a course to Eigg. As Mull receded behind us the Small Isles came into view, reminding me of a line from the Skye Boat song: Mull was astern, Rum on the port, Eigg on the starboard bow.
An anchorage was found in Laig Bay on the west of Eigg, where we made an exciting beach landing. After exploring the beautiful St Donnan’s Church (Donnan was the Island’s saint who was martyred in the 5th century) we hiked over to the Singing Sands, where we were soon making music by scuffing our boots over the sand (it was more squeak than music). Once our legs tired out we hiked up the hill pass Bealach Thuilm to enjoy a windy view north to a fog covered Skye. On our way down we passed the house known as Howlin, which has a fantastic view of the jagged mountains of Rum. J.R. Tolkien stayed in the house for a while, and it’s said the dramatic skyline of Rum was inspiration for the Mountains of Mordor.
Back aboard, Mark set a northwesterly course where, after an hour, we entered the shelter of Rum’s Loch Scresort. The anchor was dropped and we settled in for a delicious Sunday Roast, followed by nightfall over Rum.
Day 3: Harris
Leaving the Small Isles in our wake we journeyed through the Sound of Harris to try to anchor off Ensay. I was hoping to get ashore so we could take a look at its chapels and standing stones. But the wind was too strong, so Mark decided we’d spend the night tied to the pier at Leverburgh. Once ashore we followed a grassy shore path for two miles to see the 13th century St Clement’s church at Rodel, and the magnificently carved tomb of the church’s founder, Alexander Macleod.
Day 4: Scarp and Hamanavay
In the morning, a sign that sea conditions were good was the sight of the three St Kilda day-boats heading out at 8am. After breakfast we headed up the Sound to circle around the top of Scarp. The island looked as inviting as ever from the sea, and we were soon ashore. After exploring the old village and church we headed to the top of Beinn fo Tuath. Its view over to the three grand sea-lochs that cut into the west of Lewis is truly spectacular. From the top we descended to Loch a’ Mhuilinn to visit a pair of Norse mills. It was here that Alan fired up his drone for the first time, and got some wonderful footage flying over the mill race.
All too soon we had to say goodbye to Scarp and steam our way over to Loch Hamanavay for the night. Hamanavay is one of the most remote places in the Western isles; we were truly in the Back of Beyond.
Day 5: Ardveg and Pabay Mor
Mist topped the Lewis hills in the morning as I led the group to Ardveg, a remote hamlet of black houses last occupied in the 1950s. As I led the way up the pathless terrain we came across a pair of beehive cells – they are beautiful little corbelled stone structures, and hundreds dot the Lewis and Harris hinterland. At that point I realized there are no beehive cells on the way to Ardveg – uh-oh, I’d gone up the wrong side of Loch Grunavat. A 180 degree course change was required, and once on the right side of the loch a half hour climb took us to Ardveg. It is an amazing site, one of the last group of black houses occupied in Lewis; a settlement immortalized in John Macdonald’s book An Trusadh (The Gathering). The drone was launched, and some beautiful footage of the site captured, including what looked like the remains of a large boat buried in the shoreline near the jetty used by the Macdonald’s 70 years ago.
Our next port of call was Pabay Mor in West Loach Rog, once the home to a sect of the Macleods. After rescuing a sheep stuck in the bog, we visited the village, still occasionally inhabited, and then climbed to the top of the island to take in the view of the half-dozen islands that dot the loch. Once back aboard Mark moved the ship south to anchor for the night near the mile-long glittering white sands of Reef Beach.
Day 6: Berneras, Little and GreatI was looking forward to our next destination, Little Bernera, which is one of my favorite islands. The first stop was the ancient burial ground; the site of a chapel founded by St Donnan. Reaching this spot we’d travelled a hundred miles in the saint’s footsteps; for it was on Eigg, which we’d visited four days earlier, where St Donnan had been martyred. From St Donnan’s we walked through the tall machair grass to Traigh Mor (the great beach), one of the many stunning white-sand beaches that dot the Hebrides.
The sun was out, the clouds were hiding, and we still had a few hours of daylight. So we loaded into the inflatable to motor through the narrow channel between Little and Great Bernera, where a beach landing was made at the Bosta Tide Bell. The bell is one of five created by the artist Marcus Vergette (you can read about them at www.timeandtidebell.co.uk). Several guests braved the cold water next to the bell for a swim. The less brave made their way up the beach to see an amazing reconstruction of a 6th century Round House. Late in the afternoon we boarded Hjalmar Bjorge and headed to Carloway for the night.
Day 7: The Flannans
Conditions were marginal in the morning, but we decided to take a look at the Flannans. We arrived to find a large swell washing the landing stage. To make matters worse, the iron rungs on the platform were too eroded to use, as were the lower steps of the landing, which have been scrubbed nearly flat by a hundred years of heavy seas. We had just resigned ourselves that a landing was not to be, when I heard Mark say he had a cunning plan. He grabbed a rope and, along with Anna, motored over to the landing in the RIB. What they were doing was hidden from view by some rocks, but soon it was apparent they’d made a rope handrail for us to use, something to hold on to while ascending the eroded steps.
After making an exciting landing and climb up the steep steps, we walked to the lighthouse, an eerie place, where the three keepers disappeared in 1900. Next up was a crawl inside the chapel. It’s a beehive cell of indeterminate age that, at some point, was altered into a chapel. It was here that Peter May had the protagonist of his novel Coffin Road find a body. Fortunately there were no signs of foul play inside the chapel, but outside the fowl were playing, as the island is home to a large puffin colony. The colony surrounds a set of beehive cells on the west end of the island, and we spent a while enjoying their antics. When time came to leave we made our way back down the steep steps and, with the rope in hand, made a safe descent down to the waiting RIB. Thanks to Mark and Anna for making the Flannans happen!
Back aboard I discovered Alan had launched his drone to fly a few circuits around the lighthouse island. Looking at the stunning footage made me wish I had a drone, and I think the same thought occurred to Skipper Mark…
(See Alan’s fantastic footage: Flannans video)
After touring around the farthest Flannans, to look at the gannetry on the stacks and arches of Roaiream, we motored back to Lewis to find a comfortable anchorage off Scarista Beach.
Day 8: Canna
In the morning we made the six-hour sail to Canna. Once ashore it was off to see the site of Columba’s monastery, where at one point we tip-toed past a massive black bull – fortunately no one was wearing red. Then a walk was made to St Edward’s Church on Sanday. The church, built in 1860, is quite impressive from the outside. A lot of money was spent to renovate it for use as a Gaelic study centre. But I doubt if it will ever be used as one because the interior is heavily damaged by water ingress. Back at Canna Harbour we had some time to spare, and enjoyed a few drinks at the Canna Café, which I was glad to see is back in business.
Day 9: Muck
On the last full day of the cruise we made a smooth crossing to the southeast to anchor off Port Mor in Muck Harbour. Most of the guests made the easy stroll across the island to Gallanach beach, and then out onto Aird nan Uain, the headland of the Lamb, to see the unusual MacEwan burial ground.
Back aboard HBj, and under sunny skies, we crossed to the Sound of Mull, where a peaceful anchorage was found in the lee of Ardtornish Point. The point is crowned by the dramatic ruin of Ardtornish Castle, once a stronghold of the Lords of the Isles. Several eagles were spotted soring over the cliffs, including one with what looked like a rabbit clutched in its claws. The drone was launched for its final flight, and Alan sent it off to soar around the castle before returning to capture some brilliant footage of Hjalmar Bjorge floating on the sparkling blue water of the bay.
Day 9: Oban
In the morning we motored to Oban, where a gigantic breakfast filled everyone to the brim. We said our goodbyes, and soon Hjalmar Bjorge was being prepared to accept its next set of lucky guests.
Many thanks to Skipper Mark, Anna, and cook Mark for a wonderful trip. And to Alan & Jacky, Alan & Katherine, Janet & Tom, Adam & Margaret, Hazel, Liz, Michael, and William, thanks for being such good company. I hope to see you all again.
DID YOU KNOW?
A small bothy on Stac Lee was formerly used by St Kilda fowlers. It is big enough to accommodate two people and is dry inside.