Beyond the Hebrides Part 2: Wind-bound on Uist and return to Skye

Following our successful cruise out to St Kilda, we were wind bound on Uist for the next two days so a road trip around S Uist, Benbecula, N Uist, Berneray, and Eriskay was called.

Dawn of the Gresford Commandoes

In a hired car we headed north to Lochmaddy for gas and elevenses at the museum. A mosaic of a mackerel adorned the nearby rocks. Wending our way around to Berneray, we walked across the machair out through the dunes to be greeted by the irresistible white sands and clear sea of the sounds of Pabbay and Boreray and went swimming off Bernaray. Thus invigorated and after a debriefing, we put our damp modesty protection into the boot of the car and became the GSC “commando unit”, looking for a “mission”.

Miles of sand

Watching seals basking on the rocks on the E side of Bernaray we noticed a black bird with a yellow / orange beak and red legs. A chough? But isn’t the beak supposed to be red. Text to the oracle – Martin’s big brother Nigel. Reply:- Chough with yellow beak is a first year non breeding. The “mission” had presented itself.

Word was out (confirmed by Nigel) that there was an extremely rare Black Billed Cuckoo on N Uist which had flown in from Canada. The hunt was on. A heard of red deer in a field close to the road took a standing leap over a high fence. At Bay Head a party of Birders (Twitchers after a specific bird) looked disillusioned. No sighting of the Black Beaked Cuckoo all day. Then a grey bird caught our eye and Stewart’s lens. Texted photo to Nigel. Reply: male Hen Harrier. Nigel heading to the pub in the New Forrest with Mrs Nigel to drown his sorrows in Guinness.

Down over the causeways to Benbecula and South Uist, caught sight of an Owl quartering the ground. Another photo texted to Nigel. Reply: “Short Eared Owl hunting, typical flight pattern when hunting”. Another Guinness was sunk in the New Forrest as we listened to the rasping cry of Corncrakes but were not able to get a photo for Nigel.

“Short Eared Owl, typical flight pattern when hunting”

Looking over Beinn Mhore a speck flying high. Some sort of eagle? Too far away to be sure. Nigel informed, no reply.  Mission accomplished.

Next stop the remains of a black house birthplace and childhood home of Flora McDonald who in 1745 saved Bonnie Prince Charlie from the English, who were hunting him after the disastrous Battle of Culloden. Famed for disguising the vain Prince as her “Irish Maid” and taking him by rowing boat from South Uist “over the sea to Skye”, and his eventual escape to France.

On over the causeway to Eriskay, site of the sinking of the SS Politician in 1941 while carrying 264,000 bottles of whisky. Later immortalised by Comptom MacKenzie as Little Todday and the Sinking of the SS Cabinet Minister in the classic novel “Whisky Galore”.

Dinner in the ‘SS Politician’ pub on Eriskay. Here we met visiting US professor of economics and author Edward Raupp who was researching for the writing of a historical novel with a protagonist who comes from Erisaky but works with various historical people and MI6 / Bletchley Park. Signed the pub’s book of visiting Yachtsmen.

Returning to Loch Boisdale, otters were playing in the pools behind the Marina and the wind was still howling across the Loch. Another raisin moment.

On the road again

Wind F7+ blasted across the Loch all night. Reports from the Minch “rough”. So another road trip day, this time concentrating on South Uist with the 5 of us crammed into a Corsa.

First stop the Kilroan Museum, home of “Aileach” Wallace Clark’s retirement project a reconstruction of a medieval sixteen oar galley as used by the Lords of the Isles. 


 Meadow Pippits were sighted in the fields as we headed north Then as we approached Beinn Mhor a large speck was seen in the sky obviously the object of interest to a couple of fishermen standing on the road side, a quick turn into a lay. All piled out of the car, Stewart in the middle of a phone call grabbed his camera and snapped away.  Too far away, but the fishermen confirmed it was a White Tailed Sea Eagle being mobbed by a seagull, and that there were several Sea Eagles around the area.

Continuing north then turning east to Loch Carnan, and the Salar Smoke House for a tasting. A selection as starters was secured for dinner. Lunch at the Hebridean Jewellery workshops, a distinctive style not to everybody’s taste, though lunch went down well with all. Chatting with the owner we were given clues to finding Otters in Loch Skipport. 

Another winding road to the East brought us past the “Eagle Trail” and a pair of amorous ponies onto an old puffer pier, by which an Otter was feeding on crabs. All enjoyed the raisin moment as we lay in the grass watching the otter warmed by the sun with the breeze playing in what is left of our hair and the smells of the sea mingling with peat bog and wet grassland.

Then returning to the main road a speck in the sky grew and turned into a White Tailed Sea Eagle. Still too far away for normal cameras but Stewart’s amazing machine captured enough of an image for Big Brother Nigel to confirm the sighting. We watched as our Sea Eagle swooped down on something on a small hill a mile or so away, then flew off towards the coast.

Behind Borrodale burial ground we looked for some iron age roundhouses and were startled as a Golden Eagle (confirmed by Nigel) swooped out from the adjacent field, a large bird but not as large as the Sea Eagles.

Final destination for the day was Eriskay’s St Michaels Church which was unfortunately and unusually locked. Built by Father Allan famous for collection of Gaelic verse and songs, the church has a bell form the German battle cruiser Derfflinger scuttled in Scapa Flow, and an alter base made from the bow of a lifeboat from the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.

Returned to Loch Boisdale and the boat for dinner: Salar Smokehouse Salmon starter followed by Spanish Tapas. Ian’s last night aboard as he had to catch the early ferry to Mallaig and trains south to take his mum to attend a distant family members golden wedding celebrations in Scunthorpe.

a well fed crew

Back across the Minch.

Overnight the winds started to drop. A paced start to the day with hot showers, breakfast and clearing the decks and cabin of the detritus of three days in port.  With Stewart on the helm we headed out into the Minch. A gentle slop remaining from the swell. The mainsail halyard jammed both raising and lowering. Eventually we managed to raise the main to 2 reefs, then one reef and finally after 2 hours all the way up. Wind on the nose so tacking but the wind was dying. Engine on and motor sail for Canna. 

A series of sextant sights for Meridian Altitude worked out to 0.1M different from GPS latitude.

Canna Harbour

Ran Martin’s passage plan into Canna harbour for afternoon tea at the café then a walk along the coast to the medieval prison tower perched on a sea stack overlooking the entrance to the harbour.  Legend has it that in the 18th century a laird unsuccessfully imprisoned his daughter there to keep her from her lover Iain Ban Og of Skye, but Iain rescued her and carried her off to his home.

The old keep

We returned too late to go into Canna House home of the late Dr John Lorne Campbell, so explored the gardens, before returning to the boat for Stewart a swim with and photograph the jelly fish.

Leaving Canna for Rhum we spotted a rippling on the surface a mile or so away, this got nearer apparently heading towards Canna Harbour. Soon we could make out occasional fins breaking the surface. Then the pod started changing direction and we were surrounded by a huge pod of Common Dolphins. Swimming alongside the bows and breaking surface. Before breaking off and heading for Canna again.

Texts pinged into our phones as we rounded Rhum and came back into signal. Ian had gone to the station to find the only train available was the famous Jacobite steam train; he managed to get the last seat for an unforgettable journey back through Glen Finnan to Fort William. Slight compensation for missing Canna and the Dolphins.

Into Loch Scresort for our last night.  After dinner a walk up to the head of the Loch and the fantastic red sandstone Victorian Kinloch Castle, former holiday home of the Lancashire industrialist George Bullough and his descendants.

Kinloch Castle, former holiday home of the Lancashire industrialist George Bullough

Early departure from Loch Scresort to get back to Armadale to hand Sleat Odyssey back to her owner and catch the ferry back to Malliag and the long journey home. We broke the journey for Martin’s first taste of haggis as we stopped for lunch at the amazing Drovers Inn near Loch Lomond.

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