Trip Report – 16 Islands
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise – Hjalmar Bjorge – June 2-11, 2018
Marc Calhoun guided our 5th cruise of the season and tells us all about it here, with some great photos:
Friday, June 1 – a party
The cruise got off to an early start at a pre-cruise party on Friday. It was at the apartment where my wife, Shawna, and I were staying in Oban, which overlooks the North Pier pontoons. From the apartment windows we could see where Hjalmar Bjorge was berthed, which would be our home for the following ten days. Along with Mark and Anna, all the guests (but one) were there:
Dave & Jane, Nigel & Clare, Liz, Hazel, Wolfgang, Mike and Debbie. (Michael Howes was unable to attend, but he would catch up with us on Saturday.)
It was a chance for everyone to get acquainted. In many ways it was a reunion; as Nigel and Clare had been on my 2016 trip, and Liz, Hazel (and Michael Howes) were on the 2017 trip. Many thanks to my wife for doing most of the work to prepare for the party (not all, though, I did open the wine).
The weather was as it had been for the past few weeks, sunny and dry. The forecast was for more of the same (fingers crossed).
Saturday, June 2 – Transit to Loch Buie
At 4 pm we cast off from the Oban pontoons for a two-hour cruise to a foggy Loch Buie – the dark tower of Moy Castle just visible in the mist. With everyone now well acquainted we enjoyed a delicious Salmon dinner prepared by Karen, and then settled in for the first night.
Sunday, June 3 – Not a day of rest – three islands to visit
In the morning we motored out of Loch Buie through a thick sea-fog to set a course to Eileach an Naoimh, one of the Isles of the Sea, also known as Aileach. Once ashore we made our way to the massive double beehive cell, the largest of these fascinating structures found in Scotland.
A stroll through the monastic ruins was followed by a climb to a burial cairn overlooking the site – the traditional grave of Eithne, St Columba’s mother.
The fog was starting to lift as we left Aileach to make the five-mile transit to Belnahua, one of the Slate Isles. It is an historic island, one whose slates are said to have roofed the world. Once ashore on the slate covered beach we carefully made our way around the island (the footing on this heavily quarried island is treacherous in places). It was fascinating to see the ruins of the quarry and its equipment, still in place just as they left them 100 years ago.
By the time we left Belnahua the sea-fog had cleared, and under sunny skies we sailed five miles south to anchor off Scarba, pausing along the way as several porpoise paid us a visit. Although we’d set foot on two islands, there was time for another. The mercury was on the rise as I led the group past Kilmory Lodge, and then up the pony track that climbs the shoulder of Cruach Scarba. Our destination: a viewpoint over Corryvreakan.
It was a long climb. It had been 16 years since I’d made the walk in this direction, and I’d forgotten how many false summits would be encountered. After two hours in the sweltering heat we reached Carn a Chibir, a pyramid of stones that marks the end of the path. Here we took a seat to enjoy a fantastic view across the Gulf of Corryvreakan.
Monday, June 4 – a respite – one island and a mainland walk
In the morning we sailed over to Keills on the mainland, where cattle from Jura were landed many years ago. A short walk took us to the restored chapel of Cill mo-Charmaig, which stands on the site of a settlement founded by St Charmaig. Inside the chapel stands an impressive collection of medieval tombstones and a 10th century high cross.
The visit to Keills was an appropriate precursor to our next stop, the island of Eilean Mor Mhic O’Charmaig (the great isle of St Charmaig). It had once been a pilgrimage destination, the pilgrims paying their respects to the grave of the saint. Once ashore we paid a visit to St Charmaig’s Chapel and his hermitage cave.
We ended the day with a two-hour sail down to Gigha, where the anchor was dropped, and we were treated to a meal of Chicken Balmoral.
Tuesday, June 5 – a garden walk and the Brownie’s Chair
The morning was spent wandering around the beautiful Achamore Gardens on Gigha. It had been 20 years since I’ve seen the gardens. Back then they were in a sorry state, but with the help of volunteers they’ve been restored to their previous splendor.
Our next stop was the island of Cara, where we took turns sitting in the Brownie’s Chair. When we landed I forgot to doff my hat to the Brownie as required (perhaps because I was not wearing one). But he must not have noticed, as we all made it safely back to the boat.
Tides control everything on a trip like this, and after leaving Cara we caught the flood tide as it poured north up the Sound of Jura. With the Paps to our right, and the distilleries of Islay to the left, we made a quick passage through the sound, and then west to Nave Island, where we anchored for the night.
Wednesday, June 6 – Two sacred isles
More sunshine greeted us Wednesday morning as we waded through high nettles to visit Nave Chapel. It is one of the strangest ruins in the islands, having been modified 200 years ago to be a kelp processing factory; its large chimney a landmark visible for miles. I had wanted us to visit Nave mainly for the vast amount of seals I’d encountered there two years ago. But there were hardly any to be seen – which was disappointing.
Leaving Nave behind we crossed over to Oronsay to land on one of its white-sand beaches. After a visit to the priory we wandered about for several hours, enjoying the beaches, the corncrakes, and the barking seals hauled out on Seal Island. A couple of us made the climb to Carn cul ri Eirinn (the cairn with its back to Ireland), on the top of Beinn Oronsay, to enjoy the view over to Colonsay. Although Columba is said to have seen Ireland from there, we couldn’t. We spent the night anchored off Oronsay, where Fish Pie was the main course for the evening meal.
Thursday, June 7 – Erraid and Eorsa
The morning saw us storming the beach at Balfour Bay on the south of Erraid. This is where Robert Louis Stevenson had David Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, wash ashore after the ship Covenant went aground on the nearby Torran Rocks. From the beach we made the climb to the top of the island, where we took turns sitting on the wishing stone. I have visited Erraid in the past, and afraid of falling into the moat that surrounds the stone I’d never tried jumping onto it to make a wish. This time, with an audience in attendance, I tried to do it. And yes, I fell into the moat.
Our packed lunches were devoured under brilliant sunshine as we sat around the observatory; built to monitor the Dubh Artach lighthouse, which sits in the sea 15 miles to the southwest. Mark and Anna picked us up in the inflatable at the massive Erraid pier, built by the Stevensons, and then we motored past Iona to Loch na Keal. At the head of the loch a calm anchorage was found off Eorsa island, where we went ashore to climb to the top to enjoy the view to Inchkenneth, Ulva, Gometra, and the Treshnish Isles – our next stops.
Friday, June 8 – another three-island day
In the morning we went ashore on Inchkenneth, where we were quickly greeted by the caretakers, who directed us along a path to the chapel that kept us well clear of the mansion house. The house has quite a history; once being home to Harold Boulton, known for writing the lyrics to The Skye Boat Song; and then the Mitfords. (It is unlikely, but there is a rumor Hitler may have visited the Mitfords here.)
After exploring the ruin of Inchkenneth chapel we made a circuit of the island, before boarding Hjalmar Bjorge for the short crossing to Gometra Harbour – one of my favorite anchorages. Just as we were approaching the harbour a group of bottlenose dolphins came to play, bow-riding with us until we had to slow down at the harbour entrance – it was great fun (for us, too).
The clearance village in the center of Gometra was visited, and a walk to the Gometra Bridge allowed us to set foot on Ulva. A treat was in store that evening, as Mark had been diving for scallops, which made an excellent starter for the night’s meal.
Saturday, June 9 – loads of puffins, and people
Saturday morning saw us get an early start to Lunga – the idea being to beat the day-boats that bring hundreds of tourists to see the puffins. We had the island all to ourselves for a couple of hours, and had an amazing stroll along the cliff tops to see the puffins coming and going from their burrows. Even more amazing were the thousands of guillemots roosting at the base of Dun Cruit (Harp Rock). I must say that, sadly, the puffin population on Lunga seems to be a shadow of its former self. I have been there six times over the past 30 years, and the number of puffins I saw on June 9 was about 10% of the number I’d seen in the past.
Leaving the puffins behind we set a course for Iona. A visit to the nunnery was followed by a climb to the top of the island, the hill of Dun-I. (Pronounced “Dune – E”, not as some tourists call it, “Done One”). Iona was as crowded as usual, and it seemed strange being amongst so many people after a week of deserted islands.
At the top of Iona I went off by myself briefly to do something I’d been planning for several months. In my pack was some precious cargo, a small container I’d carried throughout the trip. It had been with me on 15 islands so far, but this would be the last one. I found a grassy spot on a knoll west of the summit; a place rarely frequented by tourists, that looked out over the abbey to the east, and the sea to the west. I opened the container and gently sprinkled its contents over the grass. My mother had passed five months ago. She loved Iona, and now is forever part of it.
Leaving Iona, and its tourist crowd behind, we sailed east to take a look at Fingal’s Cave on Staffa – along the way passing a basking shark zig-zagging through the water as it feasted on plankton. An hour later we reached Ardlanish Bay off the Ross of Mull, where the anchor was dropped for the night.
Sunday, June 10 – eagles and adders
The last full day of the cruise started with a slow motor along the Ross of Mull. Around noon we came to a stop below Eas Criarichan, a waterfall that tumbles 600 feet to the sea. Here we spotted an eagle’s eyrie up on the cliff-face; the eagle soaring high above. Then, after passing the amazing Carsaig Arches, we dropped anchor in Loch Buie to go ashore for the last walk of the cruise.
We then visited Moy Castle, a focal point of the classic movie “I know where I’m Going”, before crossing the fields to the Lochbuie stone circle. To me, this elegant, and almost complete circle, rivals any other in Scotland; both in its setting, and lack of tourist crowds.
As we walked east to Loch Spelve we noted a few “Beware Adders” signs. Sure enough an adder was soon spotted on the road. But this one was not a danger, having been run over. Once we reached Loch Spelve Mark and Anna picked us from the beach, and we spent the last night of the trip at anchor in the calm waters of the loch.
Monday, June 11 – back to Oban
The engines fired up at 7am, and by 8:30 we were back in Oban. After brunch we all said our goodbyes. This was my 12th trip on Hjalmar Bjorge, and it was one of the best yet. We were fortunate in so many ways: exceptional weather, good company, great food, and excellent care from Mark, Anna and Karen.
In total we managed to set foot on the following 16 islands – a record for any trip I’ve been on before. I enjoyed sailing with all of you, and hope to see you again.
Eileach an Naoimh, Belnahua, Scarba, Eilean Mor, Gigha, Cara, Nave, Oronsay, Erraid, Eorsa, Inchkenneth, Gometra, Ulva, Lunga, Iona, Mull
PS: We were also fortunate to have missed Storm Hector. Two days after the cruise ended it hit in full force. I was still in Oban then as 50 mph winds pummeled the town, the pontoons rocking and rolling as large waves washed over them.
DID YOU KNOW?
Daily shore visits are an important part of every cruise. Although both our boats are fabulous who wants to spend 24 hours a day at sea?