Mull + the Small Isles – 7th – 13th September

Another great cruise report from crew member Sarah of our early September cruise to Mull and the Small Isles

When it reaches this time of year, and the late summer winds are gradually building up, trips out into the Hebrides can be that little bit trickier, not least for the Hjalmar Bjorge’s skipper and crew to passage plan! The forecast for this trip, scheduled for Mull and the Small Isles, wasn’t great. But skipper Charlie, myself, and chef Patrick were confident we could work around it and spot some early autumnal wildlife and landscapes. This was a particularly different trip for me as my parents and grandma were joining us on board as guests, none of whom had been on a liveaboard offshore cruise before!

After roping off from Oban, pleasant smells from the galley gently steamed around the saloon, and after picking up our mooring in Tobermory we were treated to a beautiful spread of Patrick’s cooking: baked goats cheese with toasted pumpkin seeds, followed by bangers with creamy mash, and finishing with eton mess.

Day 2 (Saturday)

A bright and sunny morning in Tobermory saw our guests go ashore just after breakfast, while Charlie and I used a line to fish for a few mackerel off the boat, helped by angler guest Duncan. We didn’t catch enough to feed everyone dinner, but as a starter for dinner that evening, Patrick used some in the most delicious smooth mackerel pate. It’s set the bar incredibly high for any others than I try in the future! We’d had smooth sailing over to Canna that day, accompanied by a pod of c15 short-beaked common dolphins which decided to bow-ride with us for a little while! In the pod was even a calf so young that we could see its neonatal folds (wrinkles from being curled in its’ mothers’ womb that buff out after about a year) clearly as it kept close to mum.

We had some time after anchoring in Canna harbour, so about half our guests decided to go for a quick explore ashore on Canna (the other half relaxing on board with nibbles and pre-dinner gin and tonics). It was a gorgeous evening despite intermittent showers, but we knew there was a gale due in, so there was a real feeling of the calm before the storm. We drank in the rose-blushed sunset, unsure of when we’d see another on this trip.

Day 3 (Sunday)

The weather wasn’t quite sure what it was doing on Sunday, as showers kept sweeping through the Small Isles with the fresh winds, but sunshine blazed between the squalls. Nevertheless, most of our guests ventured off for a proper explore of Canna in the morning, and I had time (after making the boat shipshape) to go ashore with my family and take them on an unofficial guided walk up to Kate’s Cottage (a beloved whitewashed bothy sitting up on the hill, restored in the 90’s by the National Trust for Scotland), past the Celtic Cross and through the woods back to Café Canna. Although autumn was approaching, the wildlife sightings were good – juvenile blackbirds were hopping about taking the bounty of fruiting brambles, and juvenile goldfinches babbled overheard, voices like running water. Guest Pan even saw a golden eagle flying overhead!

We headed to Rum that afternoon, ready to sit out the force 8 gale in relative shelter.

Day 4 (Monday)

As forecast, rain and wind swept through Loch Scresort, forming small white horses even within the sealoch. The Hjalmar Bjorge kept her holding beautifully, but getting the dinghy off and going ashore wasn’t a wise option. We made ourselves at home on board chilling out, Penny beating Charlie and I hands-down at Scrabble!

In the afternoon, we listened to the forecast and decided that the weather in the Hebrides wasn’t going to improve over the next few days, so made the difficult decision to leave the Small Isles and head south, down past Ardnamurchan Point, and into Loch Sunart, where we’d have relief from the weather. Our journey took us down the largely uninhabited east side of Eigg, where we were sheltered from the southwesterly winds, and after we passed Muck, our stabilisers did their job and took us safely round Ardnamurchan, into sheltered Loch na Druimbuidhe where we had a late lunch of soup with mixed sandwiches, which hit just the spot after our sea passage!

On our journey into Loch Sunart, Charlie had recognised a scallop-diving boat, and we came alongside to negotiate purchase of a big bag of freshly-dived scallops. Hand-dived scallops are the real deal – they’re properly sustainable, don’t damage the marine environment, and I’m convinced taste better than dredged scallops too – especially when lightly seared with butter, lemon and samphire that same day by an on-board chef!

We anchored around the corner to the west side of Carna, in Loch Sunart, where despite the drizzle, our guests had a lovely ramble along a rough track that crossed through the natural old-growth forest to the shores of Loch na Druimbuidhe. It was my first time this far up into Ardnamurchan/Morvern, and I was blown away by biodiversity offered by the surrounding untouched woods – it’s just amazing to think that the whole of Scotland once had this varied, mixed Caledonian woodland.

Day 5 (Tuesday)

The light in Loch Sunart was muted on our fifth sailing day, with light drizzle scattering over the water. Guests Pan and Laurie had been up early, on deck with tripods looking for wildlife, and had seen a white-tailed sea eagle and peregrine falcon before the rest of us were up!

After breakfast of bacon and eggs (plus our usual spread of toast, cereals and yoghurt), we lifted anchor and headed off for an explore up Loch Sunart. We were treated to gorgeous sunshine in between quick spells of rain, and the panoramic views of old woodland with the first leaves turning autumnal golden were to die for. We anchored off Garbh Eilean, where there is a Forestry Commission wildlife hide right on the shoreline with heaps of local natural history information. Guest Duncan was happily snapping away at the harbour seals hauled out on the skerry next to the boat, as the other passengers hopped ashore for woodland walks in the ever-changing weather.

After lunch on board, we motored back down the loch, passing by Salen and Carna Island again, then back into a breezy Sound of Mull to turn into Lochaline, which has to be well-timed as the entrance to the loch itself is only accessible at a half-tide or higher.

Day 6 (Wednesday)

Waking in Lochaline, we witnessed first-hand just how wonderfully sheltered the anchorage is – we knew there were gales still rushing up the Sound of Mull, but inside the loch, there was just a light breeze. We moved from our anchorage on the quiet eastern side of the loch to the pontoons on the western side just after breakfast. The great thing about roping onto a pontoon or pier is that – although in a less remote setting – our passengers can come and go as they please, returning to the boat either when they’ve had enough of the shoreline or just get a bit hungry!

After we’d lunched on board, Patrick spotted an adult golden eagle flying in the woods above the boat, which got everybody up and excitedly watching. It made full use of the fresh breeze, being able to sweep from one side of the loch to the other, float all along the far side, and cross back to our side in a matter of minutes, giving us jaw-dropping views!

We launched the dinghy shortly afterwards, shuttling our passengers over to the eastern shoreline of Lochaline, where I joined my family in going ashore.

We had a peaceful walk past varied habitats, spotting a female hen harrier, buzzards, ravens and a big stag, which leapt gracefully over a stock fence and a drystone wall fence in a one-er!

 The other passengers had impressively walked all around the north side of Loch Aline, past Kinlochaline Castle, meeting us back on the boat at the pontoons a couple of hours later, tired but happy. We all felt we’d really earned our dinner of Patrick’s hearty beef stew, and although we’d endured some tough weather, it had definitely been the right decision to stick into the sheltered sea lochs and see the fantastic weather that Morvern has to offer!