In his youth my Dad had read and been captivated by Dr R B Carslaw’s account of sailing the western isles during the 1920s and 30s with his large and growing family. “Leaves from Rowan’s Logs” was oft referred to as much for its descriptions of place as its wonderfully caustic observations on the trials and tribulations of sailing with growing children. As a result of Dad’s captivation, I was introduced to the west of Scotland as a small child. First camping, using canoes to explore the lochs, then as the eldest son of a family of five, squeezed into a 20 foot long sailing cruiser for 2-3 weeks at a time. In the 1970s I was told this was not an unusual holiday. The Inner Hebrides infused my soul, and then lay dormant for many years. But, occasionally, a sunset through clouds would stir a memory of the islands.
The Saints: In 1976 National Geographic magazine ran an article about a team led by Tim Severin sailing across the Atlantic in a leather boat similar to the curraghs still used on the west coast of Ireland. I, like many of the crew, had read and been hooked by Tim Severin’s book. His tale of the research, design, building, and trials of the leather curragh being as fascinating as the log of the journey. He described how a stepping stone route from Ireland through the Hebrides, to the Faeroes, Iceland, past Greenland into the ice and eventually to Newfoundland matched the ancient account of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. As time passed I became aware of the voyages of other early Irish Saints through the western isles which paralleled the Irish “Scotti” colonisation of what we now call Scotland. Sailing the western isles in small light weight boats has a very long and inspiring history.
The Spirits: Whisky goes with the Hebrides. The idea of a cruise to visit some of the distilleries of Mull, Islay and Jura quickly captured the imaginations of the crew. So if excuse be needed, what better than to follow in the wake of the saints and explore the spirits of the Inner Hebrides. A few hints dropped at a significant birthday party were all that was needed to get the crew following the scent.
We chartered a Moody 31 “True Blue of Hamble” from Alba Sailing at Dunstaffnage Marine North of Oban. With Ian & Martin planning to join us part way through the week, the rough plan was to sail the Inner Hebrides. First up the Sound of Mull and if conditions permitted poke our noses round Ardnamuchan, picking up some heather on the way. Then south, through the islands to Iona and on to Islay and Colonsay. We arranged to meet Ian & Martin in Crinan then sail back to Craighouse to visit the Jura Distillery. The remainder of the cruise was to be spent working our way north through the islands up the Sound of Jura and out into the Firth of Lorne back to Dunstaffnage.
As the bard put it “The best laid plans of mice and men gan oft agley” The following log is compiled, edited and expurgated from the deck log and other recollections of the cruise.
Day 1: North Wales to Carlisle, early start loading gear for three into the Golf and on the road to get past Thelwall before the morning jam.
At Carlisle the Skipper took a detour to sort out parental domestics while the Mate and Crew went to Morrison’s for victuals. An hour later a large trolley overflowing with stores was being loaded onto the checkout belt, the cashier wondering how we would fit so much stores in a small boat, Mate wondering how we would fit it into an even smaller car. Crew wondering whether he could hold onto the car roof all the way to Oban. We offered to close the windows on his fingers if his grip started to slip. Then the checkout belt broke under the load and the cashier suggested putting some food back. A bit of reorganising and the stores were all squeezed into the Golf, and later repacked around the Crew.
From Carlisle to Oban, The roads get more open and emptier as we head north over Beattock then close in again as we drop down through Glasgow and over the Erskin Bridge, bringing back childhood memories of the bridge being built and left part complete for a year with drooping ends. Through Dumbarton and out onto the road to the highlands. Stopped at the Drovers Inn to impress the Crew with the collection of stuffed animals including the bear. There we picked up haggis and cheese melts for lunch on the go. Another change of drivers for the road north to Crianlarich then west down towards Oban. Passed by three pink bikers in tutus raising money for “Breast Way Round”.
Arrived at Dunstaffnage for the hand over of Moody 31 “True Blue of Hamble” from Tim the Engineer. Loaded and stowed the gear and stores. Time for a chill out in the Wide Mouthed Frog with a beer & snacks.
Refreshed we secured for sea, cast off and reversed out of our berth (always a moment of faith with a strange boat) then motored out into Firth of Lorne. Winds very light and on the nose so motored past our first Stevenson Lighthouse, Eilean Musdile, on the southern tip of Lismore. A lone porpoise played in the overfalls as we headed up the Sound of Mull past Duart Castle (with an enormous coach parked next to it), Craignure, Ardtornish Bay with a couple of yachts at anchor. Crew captivated by the clouds, photographing reflections and the sunset over Ardtornish Castle. Then in the gloaming passed through the narrows to Loch Aline and an anchorage for the night.
A late dinner and a whisky completed the first stage of relaxation from work to cruising mode.
Day 2: A slow start and gentle breakfast prepared by the Crew before raising the anchor and motoring out though the narrows, back into the Sound of Mull. Bright sunshine, sails up but wind light and on the nose so motor sailed up the Sound of Mull towards Tobermory admiring the scenery and large new holiday homes on the Morvern shore. Picked up an appalling weather forecast for “Jubilee weekend in The South” and the Mate’s mum’s reassurance we were in for the best weather in the UK.
Late morning and we turned into Tobermory Bay now well supplied with Visitor moorings and pontoons that were but a dream last time I came this way 35 years ago. The distillery was closed due to lack of water and the visitor’s centre had closed for lunch so we wandered up the brightly painted high street to the Post Office for Tobermory Cat postcards, past posters for “Curry Cruises” and onto Brown’s. Brown’s is difficult to describe being a miniature general superstore. A shop which stocks everything imaginable from mousetraps to Airfix models, plaster of Paris, to musical instruments and tools to fine whiskys. Bought a bottle of 12 year old Tobermory Whisky, 12v multi socket, fishing lines and that rarest of finds a PP9 battery to run the ancient echo sounder on our Shrimper “Daisy”.
We picked up some pies from the bakery for lunch and wandered back in time for the reopening of the Distillery Shop. Amongst other reminiscences and spirits they sell wooden USBs, which impressed the Mate.
In blazing sunshine and very light wind we motored towards Ardnamurchan, past another Stevenson lighthouse on Ardmore point. As we broke out of the Sound of Mull the wind picked up at last so sails up and motor off to sail around Ardnamurchan Point. More porpoises were playing under the cliffs and rafts of guillemots mixed with other sea birds drifted by then scooted out of our way.
As we rounded the point we had a clear view past the small isles up the Sound of Sleat round to Barra and past Coll to Tiree.
An evening sail past Ardnamurchan Lighthouse and gently drifting on into the sunset, we couldn’t decide where to anchor, so we decided instead to sail on into the night. Past pitch black Coll back lit by the orange twilight, we missing the blue flash and sailed on through the night past Tiree towards the beckoning flash of the Skerryvore light.
Day 3: After midnight the wind increased to F6 and backed NE. At 03:30 we reefed at the change of watch as the Skipper took over from the Mate. The Crew tucked himself deep into the lee berth as, 7 miles from Seryyvore light, we tacked and close hauled off to the East. Skipper standing watch alone tacked North for an hour before tacking back East away from Tiree towards the faint smudge of Iona on the horizon . Dark mutterings from the Crew at each change of tack were followed later in the day by an apology from the Mate for not pointing out the lee cloths.
As the night wore on instruments started to fail, first the auto helm, then the plotter. Despite turning off all unnecessary power, started to get wild readings from the echo sounder. Back up onto the windward rail, tiller extension in hand as twilight turned to half light and the Dutchman’s Cap became clearer to windward. Sunrise over Mull, Iona becoming clearer, nearer and dead ahead on 100o. A slight backing of the wind and Skipper was able to keep the ferocious Riedh Eilean group of rocks safely to leeward. But not enough to clear the Eilean Annraidh rocks which guard the north west entrance to the Sound of Iona.
Three tacks in quick succession woke the crew as the Skipper worked around Eilean Annraidh rocks before bearing away into the Sound of Iona. The engine could not be started because all the batteries were flat. Considering the options we thought it unwise to anchor off Iona as we would be more likely to get the battery charged on Mull. We anchored under sail off Fionnphort and then slept.
The Crew, with less sleep to catch up on than the rest of the crew, arranged to borrow a generator from the dive boat anchored next to us. Restarting the engine with great relief we exchanged working batteries for the remains of the bottle of Tobermory Whisky.
Motored over to Iona and landed at Martyrs beach, the scene of a massacre of Irish monks by Viking raiders in the 9th century. As we wandered up through Baile Mor towards the cathedral, we passed the beautifully simple parish church designed by Thomas Telford and built in 1828. This was the first church on Iona after the abandoning of the cathedral in the 16th century.
Exploring the cathedral the Skipper found the watch tower by the main door to the cathedral with its unusual serrated window and recalled the tale told by a mischievous guide to a 9 year old version of the Skipper…..
When the Benedictine monks ran the monastery in the 12th century they used to have a monk on lookout for visitors and raiders. One night the duty monk heard scraping footsteps coming up the stairs and saw the devil coming up the stairs to get him. The only way out was through the window. So the serrations are the groves left by his ribs as he made his escape.
The present guide had not heard the tale but swapped it for the tale of St Oran, after whom the chapel in the burial ground is named.
St Oran was one of St Columba’s followers who accompanied his leader into exile from Ireland. When the monks established the monastery they wanted to dedicate a burial ground but had no body, so Oran volunteered to be buried alive. Three days later Columba wanted to look upon the face of his old friend again, so ordered the monks to dig open the grave. When the lid was removed Oran sat up and started telling the monks how death was not at all the fiery pit of demons he had been told about. On the contrary he found it to be a wonderful place of quiet contemplation. Hearing this heresy Columba was furious and had Oran quickly reburied.
The Jubilee spirit was abroad in Baile Mor with posters of the Queen (with a safety pin through her nose) advertising a Jubilee BBQ lunch. By the time we rolled up the food was long gone, eaten within the first hour by more ravenous revellers.
Returning to Martyrs Beach the tide was in and the dinghy was missing, a hurried search found the dinghy secured to the pier and dark mutterings from everybody who thought (with 20:20 hindsight) the tide might reach the place we had left the dinghy but didn’t like to say. Two strokes of ill “luck”, what more could go wrong?
We consoled ourselves with Ice Creams, chatted with a boatman and admired the curragh which had just been rowed over from Ireland, as a robed pilgrim and his girlfriend carried a large wooden cross onto the Cal Mac ferry back to Fionnphort. Another day normal for Iona.
An afternoon cruise out to Staffa after the last tripper boat had retuned, was rewarded with the additional joys of a minke whale, puffins, guillemots, eider ducks and porpoises.
The Mate and Crew landed on Staffa and explored Fingal’s cave. With no secure anchorage the Skipper circled the island passing through rafts of puffins, passing close to the SW rocks in 30+m of water. The swell caused huge echoing booms as waves hit the back of the Boat Cave. A group of sea kayakers left heading NE towards Ulva.
Heading back towards Iona we watched for the whales without luck. Exploring the Bulls Hole we found it exposed to the northerly wind so headed south to find our way into Tinker’s Hole. Despite lookouts and a very slow speed we touched bottom on our way through the rocks. The echo sounder apparently showed 2m clear depth of water below the keel. With nine yacht’s in Tinker’s Hole, one anchored in the fairway, space was tight. The Mate redeemed some pride with excellent berthing reversing slowly into a slot with a line ashore to the rocks.
The sunset firing the pink granite brought forth the quote of the evening: “Disney could not have done it better.”
Day 4: Quote of the Day: Of the man who dreams in the night you have nothing to fear. BUT beware the man who dreams in the day, for he has the power to make his dreams come true.
Mate & Crew dived to inspect and photograph the keel. Crew in wetsuit, Mate chose a more traditional approach. The inspection only found some minor paint damage near a previous significant rust filled ding. There were no other signs of damage to the keel. Skipper rechecked the keel bolts, no signs of damage or leakage.
Working our way out, inshore of the Torran Rocks, we made passage across the South of Mull in a flat calm. Skipper invested time trying to find the leak in the inflatable dinghy’s tubes, without success. Caught the Crew dozing at the helm and reminded him in the old days this was a flogging offence.
We anchored for lunch by the old landing on Eileach an Naoimh, before exploring St Brendan’s monastery established some 20 years before Columba founded Iona. Climbing to the top of the Island we passed the ancient grave reputed to be of Eithne, princess of Leinster, sister of St Brendan, and mother of St Columba. It is easy to see how the Garvelach islands got the Celtic name of Hinba “The Isles of the Sea”, being in a commanding position for coastal traffic heading to the Firth of Lorne or out around Mull to the outer Islands. Close enough to the colonising High King’s court at Dunadd, yet far enough away to give the monks some of the isolation they craved. The tail of Corrievreckan’s flood tide eddies are visible far out into the Firth of Lorne. Close to the monastery are the well preserved and famous semidetached beehive cells.
To head inside the islands for the Sound of Jura we had a choice of Cuan Sound to the North, the Sound of Luing, The Grey Dogs or the Gulf of Corrievereckan to the South. All of which are tide gates needing either slack water or the start of the ebb. By the time we had finished exploring Eileach an Naoimh and got ourselves back on board we had only an hour of flood left so Cuan Sound and the Sound of Luing were becoming less ideal. Corrievereckan with its fearsome reputation holds a fascination. Conditions were ideal, calm, 5 miles at 5 knots and we would be entering the Gulf on turn of tide. Other yachts were also heading for the mighty maw. Setting all plain sail and motoring we set course. Skipper and Mate in turn read the pilot books, double checking tidal calculations, the Mate recalling as a child climbing over Scarba to look down on the whirlpool at full flood tide flow. With millions of tons of water squeezed through the gulf up, over and around the submerged stack close to the Scarba shore creating a fearsome standing wave with eddies shed from each side mixing with the incoming swell of a South Westerly gale, they left a small boy with an awe inspiring image of the power of the sea.
As we approached, the last disturbances of the flood tide eddies played lazily with the keel. Heading for mid channel we entered, with wide grins and taking photos like Japanese tourists. We turned to take a closer look at the boils of water just starting to build over the submerged stack, as gannets and terns dived for fish. Then out into the Sound of Jura with porpoises playing in the rip. Beware the man who dreams in the day, for he has the power to make his dreams come true.
Into the Sound of Shuna the Crew tried fishing but kept catching weed.
In through the rocks to the anchorage at Ardinamir for the night. After dinner we went for water at Ardinamir Farm. The elderly resident couple confirmed Mrs McLachlan’s visitors books had been archived by CCC and they no longer keep a book. The farm and byres are now very different from the spartan farm Mrs McLachlan kept last time I visited in 1978. Now they are well appointed holiday homes.
We walked over the hill to Cullipool in time to catch sunset from the ridge then in through the village for the lighting of the Jubilee Beacon on the hill above. Fossicking on the beach we found fools gold in amongst the slates and took a couple of stones for the Skipper’s youngest daughter.
Day 5: An early start from Ardinamire to catch the tide gate at Dorus Mhor, we were followed out into the Sound of Shuna by a small fishing boat. The weather was calm with a thin overcast as we passed through the swirls of the Dorus Mhor and the turn to Port up Loch Craignish to Ardfern. The appalling Jubilee weather from the south was moving north.
Ardfern gave us the chance to refill the water tanks, clean the boat and then the Skipper treated the crew to hot showers. Altruism or self preservation? The sun broke through and we hauled the Crew up the mast to fix a flag halyard to the starboard cross trees. Wandered up the village for lunch & camera battery charging at the Galley of Lorne. Then the postprandial snooze lasted well into the afternoon. A text landing from Crew 2 with his ETA at Crinan woke the slumberous.
As we departed the main VHF was not being picked up by the Yacht harbour, again the domestic batteries came under suspicion. Fortunately the hand held radios were both working. Motoring to Crinan put some charge back into the domestic battery.
Just as we arrived in Crinan to pick up Crew 2 it started to drizzle the rain approaching from the south. Picked up a mooring then a quick buzz around in the tender (successfully repaired at Ardnamire). Two loads, one of stores and kit the other for Crew. Kit was roughly stowed. We dropped the mooring and motored off in light rain. Out into the Firth of Lorne and south towards the MacCormig Islands with porpoises and dolphins playing around boat. Approaching the islands we had to ferry glide to cross the ebbing tide.
Twilight found us pirouetting around the tiny inlet trying to find a suitable spot to anchor without fouling an Alban Vega from Northern Ireland.
Crew 1 promoted to Chef; – Dinner of hand made burgers with oven roast chips, Granny Happ’s jubilee buns, red wine and a nip of whisky rounded off a gently satisfying day.
Day 6: After breakfast we landed on Eilean Mor, St MacCormig’s Island. MacCormig was reputed to be another one of Columba’s 12 companions. With a wayward nature and forever seeking his own white martyrdom, in a desert space in the ocean, he became known as “MacCormig of the Sea”. Eilean Mor was where he isolated himself as a hermit, using a cave at the south western end of the island as his place of contemplation or Cell. Following the Viking age Reginald Sommerled, First Lord of the Isles, set up a chapel on Eilean Mor as at many other Celtic Christian sites including the monastery and abbey on Iona, and the chapel on Eileach an Naoimh invoking the memory of a golden age of Alba before the Viking’s colonisation. Eilean Mor is now owned by the Scottish National Party.
We landed just after the strimming gang arrived by RIB. Walking up past the new visitor’s centre built in the style of a black house with a turf roof, on to the 14th Century Chapel built by Sommerled First Lord of the Isles, which has also seen use as an illicit distillery and farm house.
Over the top of the island past the cross lies MacCormig’s Cave. The original entrance has collapsed but a narrow cleft in the roof gives an awkward drop into the cave. The Chef went first then had a struggle getting out again; the Skipper and the Mate could not resist the challenge. Carved into the cave’s walls are an ancient cross and a “marigold” dated by archaeologists back to the 8th Century. Imagine an Irish Celtic hermit monk contemplating his god and carving these images. Bridging up out of the cave, the age and experience of the Skipper and Mate matched the youthful vigour of the Chef. Terns, hooded crows, gulls, guillemots, oystercatchers with their haunting whistle, turn stones, curlew and a host of other seabirds flock to the islands.
Made passage for Jura. Tidal calculations to set a course to steer, ferry gliding across a mirror sea, passing just north of the Skervuile rock and lighthouse. Into Craighouse Bay by the entrance south of Eilean nan Gabhar.
Picked up one of the many spare visitor’s moorings, then ashore to pay the mooring fee and for lunch at the Jura Hotel (Haggis Panini or salmon salad). Watching the sea kayakers paddling across the bay towards Corrievreckan, we contemplated the selection on “Jean’s Fresh Fish” van as the mobile bank was passing through.
Of course being Jura we could not miss out on the distillery tour and tasting the wonderful array of Jura Whisky. Production was just finishing with the last casks being filled before the summer maintenance shut down.
Dropping the mooring we headed south on the last of the ebb towards the Sound of Islay, catching the first of the flood off McArthurs head. Too late to call in at Port Askaig (Caol Ila) and Bunnahabhain distilleries for another tour, but able to admire the increasingly remote and unspoiled western coast of Jura with its Paps.
As we approached the northern end of the Sound of Islay the wind started to pick up so sails up and a gentle sail into Loch Tarbert (Jura) in glorious sunshine. Seals bobbed off the rocks as we made our way in through the islands and rocks following Blondie Hasslar’s leading marks into the middle loch. Three other boats had already bagged the preferred anchorages, so we tucked in by Eilean Ard to watch red deer grazing on the upper slopes of Clach an Rain.
The chef went skimming off in the tender to go mussel hunting on the drying rocks but was attacked and beaten off by Seagulls. Dinner was Pesto Chicken with pasta, followed by a walk up the hill in the gloaming.
On the last trip back the outboard ran out of fuel. So the Mate and the Chef had the joy of refuelling in the dark, adrift while the stars and planets whirled overhead un-dimmed by street lights or any other man made distraction and the moon rose over the shoulder of Clach an Rain.
Day 7: As we crawled on deck into the morning sun we noticed an old yacht with a wooden pilot house sailing out of the Cumhann Beag narrows from the upper loch and across middle Loch Tarbert. Under an enormous saltire cruising chute it made its way through the Cumhann Mhor narrows and out to sea. We followed under engine through the Cumhann Mhor narrows before raising sail, then breakfasted of bacon butties and kippers as we left Loch Tarbert.
A two hour passage brought us to Scarrisaig on Colonsay for diesel. The anchorage at Scarrisaig was exposed, with a swell and uncertain holding the Skipper stayed on board while the crew went for stores and diesel. The war memorial had 16 names from Great War from a very small community. The store was closed until 2pm for lunch so the crew returned for theirs, passing a fishing boat with a large whale vertebrae on board. After lunch a quick trip to the stores for diesel (£1.71 per litre). Harbour dues were paid into the honesty box then off for the Firth of Lorne.
As we beat up between Colonsay and Jura towards the Garvelachs wind built to F 6 + gusting 7. The Chef was proud to reach 7.6 knots in 1.5 m swell with spray over bows and with the wind speed peaking at 32 knots.
We approached the Garvelachs as the rain set in. There was no shelter to be had on Eileach an Naoimh with the wind funnelling straight through the anchorage, so we bore away for Lunga. Tucking into the relative shelter of Camas a Mhor Fhir for the night, the Grey Dogs thundering half a mile to leeward. At deck level we were out of the wind. It was a different story at the mast head.
A late dinner of the Mate’s Spanish Omelette and a dram. With rain showers cutting the deck we discussed the merits of breathable waterproofs. The Mate mused ruefully on the advantages of a set of waterproofs in which he could breathe, unlike his current set bought 30 years before in his svelte youth.
Sleep with the wind howling in the top of the rigging is relative. As the wind rose the snoring eased, and then as the howling in the rigging eased the snoring picked up again. Snoring alternated with wind in the rigging for most of the night.
Day 8: By morning the domestic batteries had drained again. Fortunately the engine batteries were ok and we were able to put some charge back into the domestics. After breakfast with high winds overhead we set off beating through the islands, out into the Firth of Lorne. On a beat back from Mull the Mate topped 8.1 knots, much to the disgust of the Chef. Gradually the wind decreasing from F6 to 5 to 3 to 0.
For lunch we nipped into Puilladobhrian, then trying to see into Clachan Sound, Skipper on the helm, we gently touched bottom with 2m showing on the depth sounder. So much for the offset. The Mate felt vindicated for his grounding approaching the Tinker’s Hole. A quick blast of reverse and we were off. Up through the Sound of Kerrera to dodge the Cal Mac ferries in Oban Bay.
Back to Dunstaffnage Bay and dodging the Eider duck we approached our second along side mooring of the cruise. Balancing wind, tide and throttle we got away with a “perfect approach”.
We were closely followed by a Westerly 41 full of French extreme sports men who, loudly feigning uncertainty and confusion, executed another “perfect mooring” next to us. Visions of a night disturbed by over enthusiastic youth started to form as they proceeded with unloading their cargo of climbing gear, Para-gliders, surf boards, musical instruments (including violins, guitars and a full drum kit) and began carefully checking and sorting it before loading it into their converted fire tender. One of the climbers gracefully bounced up and balanced on a fence to take photos as the tide rose around the wheels of the fire tender. The tide receding inches before doing any damage. The graceful movement was explained when we learned later that this was no ordinary group of youth, but a troupe of acrobats from Circe de Soleil.
After clearing the boat, a night off for the Chef with a superb dinner in Wide Mouthed Frog watching the sun set over the Morven shore. It doesn’t get much better than that.