Canna and the Small Isles  22 – 29 September 2018

Our regular guest Archie has become a firm friend and joined us aboard Hjalmar Bjorge for our final cruise of the season.  Here’s Archie’s lovely account of the cruise, accompanied with some great photos by fellow guest Annie:

It was with some apprehension that I boarded Hjalmar Bjorge for our cruise to the Small Islands, those little islands strung along the coast of Skye from the Scottish mainland to the outer Hebrides.  But why this misgiving?  Well, just the previous week we had experienced storm Ali.  Was this going to happen again?

Anyway, we set out on a pleasant enough Saturday evening – destination Tobermory.  Soon after passing the South Lismore light, the ship was in the Sound of Mull and over to our right – or should that be starboard (must get used to these nautical terms) – a radiant rainbow bent backwards over Morven and just as quickly vanished before I could unpacked my camera.  To port, the great bulk of Ben More shyly dodged behind its lesser neighbours, Corra-bheinn and Sgurr Dearg as the HB pressed on.  Little boats and big ships danced past to the sound of the Kelpies whistling through the rigging and in the gathering dusk, Tobermory with its multi-coloured shirts appeared in the distance.  That evening, we dined well, swinging gently on a mooring buoy in the bay.

Early next day after much deliberation, skipper Mark decided to make for the Island of Canna with its safe anchorage.  You may need your Sturgeron, he warned as he laid out the crystallised ginger and Polo mints.  In the event, the weather was kinder than anticipated as we left the shelter of Tobermory bay.  The seas creamed off the bow and raced in confusion towards the glowering headlands of Lochaber.  “That lighthouse to your right marks the furthest westerly point of mainland Britain.  That’s Ardnamurchan.”  Waves broke in angry white on the black teeth of Corrachadh Mor and gannets fed in the backwash.

Making our way westerly, there was Muck Island and Eigg too with its characteristic plook (Allt a’ Bhlair Dhuibh) and soon the looming heights of Rum drew us onward to Canna.  With the motion of the boat, the strains of the Mingulay Boat Song ran through my head . . . Heel y’ho boys / let her go boys / Bring her head round / into the weather . . . Soon we were in the lee of Canna and the rest of the trip was easier.

From the anchorage of Canna, we passengers set off in various directions to explore, some towards the island of Sanday, others to Compass Hill looking for golden eagles (unsuccessfully).  I took the path to the castle-prison by way of a sandy shore and listened to the little waves sliding up the shore and back, lisping all the way (to quote MacCaig.)  From the shore, I spotted a goldy soaring high and I’m sure it was sticking its tongue out at those on the hill.  As a group, we met up again at the local café and had ice cream, what else!

That evening as we sat at our meal, we witnessed a glorious sun setting behind the abandoned church on Sanday.  This was the end to an enjoyable day and excursion to the two islands.

As ever, we were roused next morning at 7.00am by a pulsating genney.  Our destination was towards the mainland via Rum and Mull.  The lee of the island sheltered HB from the worst of the weather as we motored along its easterly shore and there, on one of the many sandy inlets were around a score of red deer.  Miffed, they turned to stare at us and gave us the V-sign with their ears.  Onward, we dropped anchor in Loch Scresort (Rum)  and went ashore to Kinloch village to explore.  Various paths led to the large mansion house (pretending to be a castle) with several tempting tracks pulling us here and there.  Here were two herons competing for the fishing rights in one of the many bays and after a bit we rode back to HB in the RIB as a hail shower tin-tacked the surrounding sea.

The voyage south continued through green seas topped with heads of white spume.  Over to the left barely visible were the Black Cullens with peaks hidden in low cloud.  Occasionally, just occasionally, a shaft of sunlight would burst through and spill down the slopes before returning to the murk.  On the right, the isle of Muck dodged behind its brawny neighbour, Eigg.  We would not be stopping off at either island in view of the impending weather.  A force 9 was forecast; that’s a strong gale.  We were bound for the haven of Loch Nevis with its surrounding mountains. That night at Tarbet (Loch Nevis) we spent a quiet and calm night.  Skipper Mark certainly knows where and when to shelter.

The following day started with a walk from Tarbet over the isthmus to Loch Morar.  It was a rocky path but quite easy going to the saddle that stands over a brooding expanse of water that was Morar, reckoned to be the deepest freshwater loch in Britain.  There was no sign of Morag – the loch’s resident monster; just a lone hawthorn bush bowing before the wind, all oxters and elbows.  These walks certain rouse appetites!

Skipper Mark alerted us to the rough ride in prospect to our next destination and sure enough when HB left the shelter of Nevis, the full force of the gale’s aftermath could be felt – more ginger and Polos.  We were now into the Sound of Sleat, with Skye to our left and mainland Knoydart to our right and to some extent we were sheltered by these land masses.  Just the comforting sound of the ship engines or the mocking cries of the sea birds.  Oh! And there was a lone puffin left behind by its mates on their way to some unknown place in a wider ocean.

Almost at the end of the Sound and near the Skye Bridge, we set anchor for the night in Loch Alsh, again sheltered from any pending stormy blast (Rabbie Burns expression).  Mark outlined plans for the following day and we all tucked into a sumptuous meal – with cabaret to follow!

With the wind moderating somewhat, we made journey to the village of Plockton.  This took HB under the Skye bridge with a view of Pabay before us and on the horizon a blue/grey smudge, the Crowlin Islands.  Into Loch Carron, first north then east and the tranquillity of Plockton.  You can see why this village has been named, “Jewel of the Highlands.”  There are palm trees everywhere disclosing its mild climate and for all its remoteness it had its own train service and station.

The group scattered to the four winds, to explore unknown secrets, reconnoitre fresh haunts . . . not a bit of it.  They were off to the various little shops and gift boutiques.  As for me; I bought a new garish woolly hat – made in Nepal!  Not exactly local.  Nevertheless, the village had its own pace and charm with the every-day low key bustle of fishing and boats.  An interesting and popular place to visit!

It was time for the cruise  to head in the direction of home.  The weather was still playing with us and took us swiftly past Kyle of Lochalsh and into Kyle Rhea with a brief glimpse of Loch Duich and later, the wide opening of Loch Hourn – don’t the name places trip off a tongue pretending to be knowledgeable!  Just west of Loch Hourn lies the tiny island of Ornsay providing a favourite natural harbour.  There, we planned to spend a sheltered night.  In the event, it proved to be boisterous with the skipper periodically checking the anchor.  The HB did rock but gently as Valkyries rode overhead and the Blue Men did their best below.  You could almost hear Wagner smacking his lips

We woke to a grey day with two of our group dangling fishing lines over the side, more in hope than expectation.  They did catch a few tiddlers  which they thought were mackerel although I couldn’t see any tiger strips; I didn’t like to contradict, though.

Skipper Mark planned to battle south to Tobermory for our final evening and set off south.  I found the wave formations rather curious and not as wild as anticipated.  The seas were certainly large but had no broken tops with untamed spindrift.  The result was a smooth up-and-down with a long frequency which all made for a smooth voyage helped by the boat’s stabilizers.  We passed a working fishing boat, not so lucky, wallowing in the swell.  A blond gannet passed with some purpose which it did not divulge to us mere mortals.  I guess it was thinking of fish suppers – what else?

The movement of the boat changed radically as we came within the shelter of Mull and by lunch we were tied up at the staging in Tobermory harbour.  The town itself has its interesting points including a pink ice cream boutique on the foreshore (duly sampled.)  Some day I must write a book – Ice Cream Parlours of the Western Isles.  We sampled the procession of shops along the strand before exploring more widely.  As ever here, there was the perpetual perfume of the angels’ share drifting with the Scotch mist and a reminder of the uisge-beatha to come.

The last leg from Tobermory to Oban is considerable and a 7.00am start is needed.  The passage is calm in the shelter of the Sound of Mull and gives time for thought of the past Odyssey to the Small Islands on a well founded ship in congenial  company.  My brain teems with the experiences of the past few days; the tang of the salt of the sea and the honey of the island heather – the salt of absence, the honey of memory – and of course the ever presence of the wind. “What care we for wind or weather!” . . . it’s the Mingulay boat song again and I wonder if they had Polo mints and ginger.

We are back in Oban, to the noise of traffic and the nose of fish and chips.  I must register at Weight-watchers.

Slan leat

Archie Smith

Magician Extraordinary (October 2018)

Footnote: In fond memory of guest Graham Wren who sadly passed away recently