August 2021 : Cruising Scotland

Earlier

Greetings from Aremiti in Craobh and Julia and Chris now back in Bristol. We have spent the final stage of this year’s voyage in Scotland – in the southern Inner Hebrides. We had been feeling the pull of Scotland ever since our first sightings of the Mull of Kintyre from the coast of Northern Ireland. The sailing community in Northern Ireland evidently regard this area of Scotland as their cruising ground - we encountered many boats either just returned, or about to set off there, further whetting our appetite, so we were full of eager anticipation as we set off from Rathlin Island.

Having, up until this point, had a clear direction of travel, we were now faced with an enticing array of destinations ahead of us in all directions, making route planning particularly baffling. We had 3 weeks to get to Craobh – our wintering marina – less than 50 miles by the direct route – but where to start? Then of course, there was the weather, which ended up more or less dictating when and where we went. This was a period of extremely unsettled weather and unsettled forecasts which, after the quiet of July and the first few days of August, came as quite a shock to the system. So our ‘plan’ was effectively a list of destinations which we hoped to get to when the time for each was right. Never planning more than half a week ahead, we went hither and thither, frequently changing even short term plans as conditions demanded.

Our first Scottish landfall was Port Ellen on the island of Islay which, having a marina and supermarkets, enabled us to prepare for a period of time in remote anchorages and small islands - filling water and fuel tanks, getting in good food supplies, doing laundry etc.

Islay was formerly capital of the Western Isles – seat of the Lord of the Isles. 25 miles from north to south and 15 miles east to west it has around 3,000 inhabitants, about a quarter of whom speak Scottish Gaelic, concentrated mainly in and around the villages of Bowmore and Port Ellen and a few smaller settlements. The rest of the island is sparsely populated and mainly agricultural. One of the major commercial activities is, of course, malt whisky distillation - the dark waters from the extensive bogs giving rise to the distinctive peaty taste. There are 7+ distilleries on the island, dotted around the coast. Today’s annual production is about 4,000,000 gallons. An interesting feature of these waters is the ‘amphidromic point’ near Islay, where the tidal range is zero. Despite this, tidal currents in the straits between islands are some of the strongest in the British Isles – yet another factor in passage planning.

Generally Islay seemed easier to explore by land than sea – its southern shores facing straight into the Atlantic with no deep or sheltered harbours or anchorages. We started exploring with a walk out along the extremely rocky eastern shore to pop into the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, before hiring a car to explore further afield - managing to drive 109 miles – no mean feat on such a small island. We visited the delightful present day ‘capital’ of Bowmore on Loch Indaal – a very gracious village with wide streets of white houses, main street leading up to circular church of Kilarrow - designed so that the devil could find no corners to lurk in! – and another distillery. We went north to Port Askaig for a first look at the Sound of Islay, and south west to Portnahaven – calling in at the settlements of Bridgend and Port Charlotte - purpose designed and built to provide for workers for distilleries.

Our plan to visit Gigha next was stymied after a night there, when conditions required us to find protection from easterlies for a day or so. We moved on to West Loch Tarbert deep into the Kintyre peninsula - a nine mile long narrow inlet with a forested and rock-strewn coastline. There is not a lot going on there - pretty much the only sign of human habitation is the ferryport of Kennacraig with services out to Islay and Colonsay. There is a derelict fishing harbour at the far end – but too shallow for us, so we hunkered down about a mile away with anchor well dug in and plenty of swinging room. The next three days were extremely blowy – gusting up to 35 knots on one day, and it was hardly possible to dinghy ashore and certainly not to leave the boat unattended. However, we enjoyed some beautiful calmer evenings. The meaning of ‘tarbert’ – a place name which crops up all around this coast – is an isthmus which boats can be carried across – portage sites. This became relevant when by a very happy coincidence we discovered, via the rather intermittent internet connection, that Fiona and Bob on Hekla, who we first encountered in Aberystwith and then again on Bardsey and have kept in touch with, were currently berthed in the marina at East Tarbert – just a mile and a half away in Lower Loch Fyne on the other side of the Kintyre peninsula. They braved the elements and walked over to visit - perfect timing - a convivial evening on board considerably lifted our spirits! We were ‘trapped’ in West Loch Tarbert for 4 nights, before the weather went through by which time the original easterlies had become strong westerlies – not so good for the loch, but perfect for Gigha. We made our escape, timing our departure by the ferry timetable so as to avoid encountering the monster Caledonian MacBrayne ferry in a tight and rocky passage. Motoring hard into the wind we headed back to Gigha.

Gigha - ‘God’s Island’ or ‘the Good Island’ - 3 miles off the coast of Kintyre is just 6 miles long and 11/2 miles wide. After many decades of stagnation under a series of private owners, the local community bought their island in 2002 for £4 million, since when it has flourished with several private businesses springing up boosting the local economy and seeing an increased population. With 25% arable land, relative to its size, Gigha is the most fertile and productive island in Scotland.

We picked up a buoy in the bay off the main settlement of Ardminish – which is very welcoming to yachts with a pontoon for dinghy landing, shop, showers, hotel and the buzzing ‘Boatyard Bistro’. Best of all was the sunshine! We enjoyed a couple of good walks on the island, similar in character to St Mary’s in the Scillies. We climbed the highest ‘peak’ – Beinn Creag Bhan – just 100 metres high with its very pleasing summit of rock and heather.

After a couple of days on Gigha, we thought we spied a ‘weather window’ suitable for venturing out to the more exposed waters to the west of Islay and Jura. However, it was not to be - the brighter weather did not prevail and conditions again became unsettled, unsettling and frankly depressing – there’s a fine line between ‘atmospheric’ and dismal – but the forecast was now downright atrocious. So our next change of plan took us, ahead of the incoming Atlantic front, up Loch Sween and into Tayvallich on the mainland. This is a long picturesque loch guarded by a castle, flanked by pretty woods down to the shore and with several narrow arms deep into the forested hills. Tayvallich, nestled behind an entrance of rocks provides complete shelter and facilities such as a shop and pub – all comforting in bad weather. We were able to fit in a good walk on our first morning before the weather kicked off, delighted to find that our visit coincided with the local Arts Trail weekend. Our third day there was probably wettest of the entire trip with torrential rain all day. However, at last there came a change, with a forecast for a prolonged period of settled weather ahead, so finally we would be able to get to the other side of Jura to less protected destinations. We set off on a misty morning back down Loch Sween, en route discovering Perdika – our previous boat – bobbing on her mooring at Achnamara in one of the arms of the Loch.

Having just missed the north west going tide through the Sound of Islay, we anchored for a night off Craighouse – the main settlement on the island of Jura. Jura had been looming large in view during all our comings and goings, usually shrouded in mist/cloud. It is a wild and mysterious island – mountainous, bare and largely infertile, covered by extensive areas of blanket bog. 27 miles long by 2-8 miles wide its mountain range runs the length of the island, culminating on the southern end in the Paps of Jura – three rounded peaks the highest 785 metres – which, when not in cloud cover, dominate the landscape of these islands. The one main road runs part way up the east coast linking a number of small settlements north of Craighouse. The west coast is deserted and it is one of the least densely populated islands of Scotland. Much of the land is good only for deer stalking - there are about 5,000 deer on the island – outnumbering the human population by 25 to one. Jura seemed an incongruous location for George Orwell to have written his novel ‘1984’ - while living in a remote farmhouse on the island in the late 1940s.

Despite the rather forbidding nature of Jura, Craighouse is a sweet looking place - a delightful surprise. The Jura Distillery and Jura Hotel are in prime position near the pier, with pretty white houses strung along the coastline. We enjoyed a memorable venison pie in the hotel – where we met the crew of another Ocean Cruising Club boat full of exciting tales and plans to visit Canada via Iceland and Greenland.

Finally time for the sound of Islay – the 11 mile long, narrow strait between Islay and Jura with fast running tidal currents We timed this to perfection with 5+ knots of tide under us as we passed no less than three more distilleries. The passage which started in disappointingly misty and murky conditions, miraculously morphed into brilliant sunshine at the other end!

Our summer voyage culminated in 10 days of gloriously sunny, settled (if rather windless) weather – perfect for exploring those locations more at mercy of Atlantic lows, which can really only be done in such conditions. Patience rewarded!

Emerging at the northern end of the Sound of Islay, with the island of Colonsay on the horizon, we turned to starboard for Loch Tarbert, Jura. Described in the pilot as ‘the wildest and most remote loch south of Ardnamurchan’ it is comprised of 3 sections. We headed to the inner end of the outer section, gingerly picking our way, via sets of leading lines taking us scarily close between rocks on each side, into a small anchorage at the pass into the middle section, at Cumhann Mor. We then decided to go off on a Swallows and Amazons type dinghy trip to explore the next section of the loch. However, this turned out to be not such a good idea when we realised the strength of the tide ripping through the pass. The mysterious swirling, bubbling, up-wellings and down-wellings, fascinating when seen from the deck of a yacht, were distinctly more scary from dinghy level, so we didn’t pursue this adventure too far, anxious that the dinghy engine might not be a match for the current. Before moving on we explored the raised beach at Cumhann Mor on foot – one of the numerous raised beaches on Jura – a long wide strip of unvegetated pebbles about 15 metres above sea level, caused by the rebounding of the land as the ice sheets retreated. We spent a final night in the loch at an anchorage close to the imposing Glenbatrick Lodge – from where mysterious high speed launches emerged from time to time. It transpires that the lodge, accessible only by sea, belongs to Viscount Astor and is frequented, among other notorieties, by David Cameron and family for a spot of chillaxing!

And finally to the island of Colonsay – which had acquired the status of a holy grail, following previous thwarted hopes to get there. Eleven miles across a glassy sea with views out to Mull to the north looking very close, and 60 miles away to the south, the coast of northern Ireland - it didn’t disappoint – at least in this weather. Our marvellous guide on the Scottish Islands states baldly of Colonsay: ‘There are no good anchorages’. We peeked into the harbour at the main settlement and ferryport of Scalasaig, but this was too tiny, too rocky and too dominated by the huge pier for us to feel comfortable there so we moved on to Loch Staosnaig, round the next headland to the south which had plenty of space and good holding.

Colonsay is a delightful island – all the more special for being harder to reach. 8 miles long by 3 miles at widest it has, since 1904 been owned by the Lords Strathcona – currently the 5th, who lives in Colonsay House. Its resident population is 124, but there are numerous holiday cottages and a hotel – owned by the estate. It has its own brewery, a book shop and an annual book festival! What’s not to love! We walked north and westwards on the island, taking in the highest ’peak’ - Beinn nan Gudairean, 145 metres, with stunning views out all around – across to Jura, Mull and the innocent looking gap between Jura and the next island Scarba – Corryvreckan…. Colonsay House was open for cream teas and a stroll around the gardens, checking out the impressively huge Monterey cypress with the largest girth in the UK and many exotic and sub-tropical species from the southern hemisphere Then on to Kiloran Bay - a stunning sweep of pale golden sand with blue sky and sea. Too bad we had to leave ….

Our final flourish was the passage through Corryvreckan. This passage – just 2 miles long and ½ mile across is one of the most notorious stretches of water anywhere in the British Isles, caused by the speed of the current, the extreme turbulence at each end and, of course, the presence of the 3rd largest whirlpool in the world – caused by a pillar of rock rising from the sea bed. Even with absolutely no wind and a glassy sea we felt some trepidation regarding the timing – not helped by the fact that the calculations given in different guides result in slightly different times, some suggesting that the only ‘window’ may be the 15 minutes of slack water. Needless to say that in these quiet conditions, although there was obvious turbulence in the water, the passage was almost disappointingly uneventful with no sign of the dread whirlpool.

And so we arrived into Craobh Marina – an extremely sheltered haven formed by the linking of three small islands. The staff there are welcoming, helpful and friendly and there is a good boatyard. Aremiti is out of the water and prepared for winter, and we feel she will be safe and happy there.

Now, 789 miles from Bristol and with 101 miles of walking achieved this year, we have ended our voyage. All very good – and not a single lifeboat was involved!

Julia and Chris