July 2022 : Mallaig to Stornoway



This past 3 weeks have been some of the most trying of our sailing career. We have now been gale-bound six times this ‘summer’ (as they laughingly call it here) – meaning periods of very strong winds when yachts run for cover into the few marinas in these parts until it all dies down. We have been thwarted from achieving various ambitions by adverse winds. We have had far too much rain and it has been perishingly cold – the temperature only once reaching above the giddy heights of 20?. And now we have Covid! However, it has not all been bad as you will see – and, so far, we haven’t seen a single midge!

So there we were in Mallaig – the weather undecided as to whether to head us west to cruise the Outer Hebrides, or north passing between the mainland and Skye. The outlook remained stubbornly unsettled, but what was certain was that we had a rendezvous in North Uist in just under three weeks time.

Keeping options open, we set off back to Rum – a good sail, arriving in weak evening sunshine – very different to our earlier visit. Still sunny next morning - though with mountain peaks shrouded in cloud, apart from occasional glimpses of Mount Askival (812m) brooding over us – we went ashore to have a look at Rum. Walking along a stone track – the island’s main road – to Kilmory Bay, we passed waterfalls, bogland and lots of Rum red deer - subject of the world’s longest (started 1972) large animal survey, but entirely devoid of human habitation. The Skye Cuillins appeared - tantalisingly briefly across the water – their majestically high summits just peeking through wafting cloud. We enjoyed a picnic overlooking a beautiful golden beach, watching the deer watching us. We returned via Kinloch Castle, built in 1900 by the Bullough family – self-made millionaires from the Lancashire cotton trade, for their sporting and fishing activities. A prime example of extravagant Edwardian opulence it boasted a conservatory populated with humming birds, grapes, peaches and figs, a jacuzzi and grounds employing 14 under-gardeners who were paid extra to wear kilts! Now closed and sadly decaying, we could only peer through the windows at a couple of grand formal rooms – and a lot of rubbish. We got back onboard just before it started raining – with the impression of a somewhat forbidding and not particularly welcoming island.

We were anticipating something completely different for our next island – Canna - a few miles west. Maybe a dazzling blue sky, sizzling white beaches, turquoise water, palm trees with scantily clad people under parasols, sipping Aperol Spritz? Well, it wasn’t quite like that but it was surprisingly different to Rum – with a very pretty, endearing and welcoming look to it. We immediately loved it – relishing a drink at anchor in light-hearted sunshine, with Rum sitting there less than 5 miles across the water glowering under oppressively thick clouds. Highlights of a stroll ashore included an ancient celtic cross right next to a ‘punishment’ stone for the accused’s thumb to be jammed in a hole, a stack topped by a tiny castle, and the wonderful unattended shop where customers are trusted to note what they have taken, to be paid for online! We enjoyed another fine dining experience at Café Canna, constantly impressed with the standard of cuisine in the most unexpected of places. However, the idyll ended the following day with unrelenting rain.

Finally decision time. With an adequate forecast, we set off across the Sea of the Hebrides, in rather dismal conditions, harder on the wind and with more adverse tide than expected. However, conditions gradually eased, some tentative sun appeared and the second half of the 30 mile crossing was an excellent and very enjoyable sail. Our original plan had been to make landfall at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, in Barra, having first circumnavigated the small unhabitated islands to the south, with their evocative Norse sounding names – Berneray, Mingulay, Pabbay, Sandray, Vatersay. However, a forecast of strong winds in the next couple of days did not make that feasible, so we amended the destination to Eriskay the next island in the chain. We then modified again as an alarming fall in pressure suggested that yet another burst of strong winds might arrive more imminently than forecast. So we arrived in Lochboisdale in the south of South Uist - a bomb-proof harbour with good facilities, where we waited out two bursts of heavy winds.

We took the opportunity of our secure location for some land travel, to explore the famous white sand beaches of the west coast and the hinterland of these islands. Having failed to make landfall on Barra, we booked on a ferry to get us there. However, just before our first attempt we received a text from the ferry operator Calmac informing us of likely disruptions or cancellations. It was indeed a day of strong winds – the huge ferry from South Uist to Mallaig was stranded in Lochboisdale, unable to manouevre in 45 knot winds, and numerous other ferries were cancelled. Not wanting to risk getting stranded on Barra, we changed our booking. A couple of days later, having viewed these ferries plying back and forth between the islands and mainland all the time it was fun to travel on one and see the vital role this aging fleet plays in the life of these remote islands.

Barra is gorgeous – pretty interior with red roofed houses and trees and stunningly lovely beaches and coves. Owned over many centuries by the MacNeil Clan, a herald used to proclaim from keep of Kisimul castle – on an island off Castlebay - “Hear ye people and listen ye nations. The great MacNeil of Barra, having finished his meal, the princes of the earth may dine.” – clearly a big fish in a small sea! After a period of unhappy private ownership, the island was bought back in 1937 by an American MacNeil, recognised as Clan’s 45th chieftan. His son, an American professor of law, gifted the island to the Scottish nation and in 2003 leased the castle for annual rent of £1 plus a bottle of Talisker whisky. Highlight of our visit was the airport – the only one in the world with scheduled flights landing on the beach – only available at low water! Notices warn against going on to the beach when the windsock is flying – which it was! Our timing was perfect to watch the landing of flight LM451 from Glasgow across the glorious white beach! Tiny plane – 18-20 passengers, but nonetheless a remarkable sight. We drove across the causeway to the island of Vatersay, admiring its long white beach and landscape of gentle grass-covered hillocks and undulations, sand dunes, and little ponds, resembling a golf course - clearly the model for golf courses around the world! Castlebay, the ‘capital,’ was a little disappointing – grey and closed up - just one tiny café serving unspectacular food. In deteriorating conditions we aborted a couple of walks planned for their superb views as rain set in for the rest of the day.

Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist form a chain about 45 miles long, linked by causeways. A spine of mountains – the highest Beinn Morh (620 m) on South Uist, runs down eastern side, broken by deep sea lochs and the gaps between the islands. The western coastline is comprised of long white beaches backed by dunes and flower covered machair - duney pastureland. The west coast is pretty much a no-go area for yachts, its beautiful shallow beaches constantly pounded by the Atlantic with nowhere to shelter. The middle section – extremely waterlogged - is formed of lochans and peat moorland. 50% of the whole area of North Uist is under water. The very sparse population – a fraction of what it was before the 19th century Highland clearances - is largely Gaelic speaking.

Eriskay was half an hour’s bus trip from Lochboisdale, linked to South Uist by a causeway. We enjoyed lunch at ‘Am Politician’ the island’s one pub – very busy, with a convivial atmosphere and excellent food. The pub is named after the SS Politician which went aground in 1941 losing its cargo which included 164,000 bottles of whisky - the basis of the film Whisky Galore! We walked along Coilleag a’ Phrionnsa beach – where Bonnie Prince Charlie made landfall, triggering the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6 – a sparkling white beach with turquoise water even on a dull day, backed by a sweeping yellow carpet of buttercups, egg and bacon vetch and yellow flag irises.

We explored the Uists and Benbecula by car - easy driving on a flat road - single track with numerous passing places. It all felt very remote with the population thinly spread in isolated crofts and a few tiny hamlets, fabulous white sandy beaches and rocky bays, small lochs many covered by water lillies. The machair is bright with yellow flowers, grazed by cows and sheep. We spied a number of traditional thatched houses, but most homes seemed fairly utilitarian - 1950s pebble-dashed bungalows. Highlights: a viewpoint out to St Kilda 44 miles off - very faintly discernable but extraordinarily high, and panoramic views of the southern islands right down to Barra way to the south; a picnic of oatcakes and salmon pate on Baleshare – a stunning west coast beach – miles of white sand beach, dunes and bright blue sea pounding in; Kildonan Museum which included excellent exhibitions of crofting history and lifestyle, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s exploits in the Outer Hebrides in 1745 - Flora MacDonald was reputedly born nearby, and the significant contributions by Catholic parish priests to the preservation of Gaelic culture; and the Cladh Hallan Roundhouses - traditional neolithic stone dwellings - one reputedly the longest inhabited prehistoric house in the world, having been rebuilt several times between 1100 and 200 BC.

We had planned to cruise gently up the eastern side of the islands savouring some of the myriad scenic and remote anchorages of the complex and rocky coastline. Wizard Pool in Loch Skipport was a sweet anchorage below mountains shrouded in cloud – intimate and pretty - but it was hard not to think how much more enchanting it would be in warmth and sunshine. With a forecast of relentless rain over the next few days, we decided to foreshorten this trip, seeing no point in nights in beautiful remote anchorages, no matter how idyllic, just to hunker down in the boat in pouring rain! It was bitterly disappointing. We made exploratory forays into a number of anchorages – for future reference… Rossinish on Benbecula was where Bonnie Prince Charlie, with Flora MacDonald, dressed as her female servant set off ‘over the sea to Skye’ to hide from the British army. With strong wind picking up we set off on the final 10 mile leg to Lochmaddy, sailing under genny and mizzen consoled en route by a spectacular multiple dolphin display.

The marina in Lochmaddy where we waited to rendezvous with guests is scarily close to the ferry port. On its approach, the ferry heads apparently for us with its bow doors opening, looking for all the world as if it is about to swallow us whole! Joking with the marina guy, we observed that you wouldn’t want the ferry to lose power while docking. He informed us that some years ago the throttle of a ferry got stuck leaving it to plough into the marina!

The highlight of this summer’s voyage was to have been a passage out to St Kilda - 45 miles out into the Atlantic, west of the Outer Hebrides. This hyper-remote and mysterious group of islands and stacks is an iconic destination and we had invited Jeff and Jerzy, members of our Bristol Sailing Association to join us for the adventure. However, St Kilda is not an easy destination – as advised by our pilot book: “Visibility and weather suitable for visiting St Kilda do not occur frequently and a yacht must be prepared to clear out at short notice.” But despite its daunting reputation and the continuing instability of the weather, we kept daring to hope. In discussions with yachties who have made it there in past years, we were given looks as if we were mad to consider it in current forecast conditions. In the event, the forecast following Jeff and Jerzy’s arrival had winds of up to 20 on the nose and 2 metre seas which Aremiti would have been unable to plough into. Forecasts for the following few days had a burst of strong winds in 2-3 days’ time – and St Kilda is the opposite of a safe haven. So with huge disappointment and reluctance we had to accept that it wasn’t to be.

So instead, we headed northwards up the coast of Lewis/Harris. We enjoyed a great sail on the first day – winds far stronger than forecast – but on the beam and in flat seas Aremiti made impressive speeds getting us to the island of Scalpay, now connected by a bridge to Harris. The following day we headed out to the Shiant Islands – a small uninhabited archipelago. These were a revelation, having never heard of them before. Spectacular scenically, we have never seen such a variety and density of birds – on the water, on the land and wheeling in the air above us. Some minor compensation for St Kilda. We enjoyed lunch anchored in this awesome setting. Moving on north again, we found a remote and beautiful anchorage – ‘Witches’ Pool’ – in Loch Mariveg in the approaches to Loch Erisort, involving intricate navigation – hard to have done this without electronic charts. The sun came out and we enjoyed a rare evening in the cockpit. On the following day we headed north again heading for Stornoway, taking advantage of the very short passage to practice and experiment with Jeff’s man-overboard retrieval system. Good practice for something we hope will never happen and consequently avoid thinking about too much – salutary how difficult it was to pick up a ‘person’ (two buckets and a fender) in even a slightly bouncy sea. Unfortunately, Julia had tested positive for Covid that morning. Having started a sore throat and coughing, she assumed this was a cold and only took the test to reassure everyone that it wasn’t anything worse! The rest of the crew took the pragmatic view that as they could already have picked it up, we might as well carry on as planned.

During the time Jeff and Jerzy were with us, the weather, while not glorious, had been dry with several periods of sunshine. However, we were not done with difficult weather conditions - strong adverse winds were forecast for 2-3 days, making our chances of returning back to North Uist in time for Jeff and Jerzy to catch their flight home, too uncertain to risk. Given that the alternative was to sit for that time on a Covid-ridden yacht, they rearranged their flights and left from Stornoway. They were great guests and we felt very sad to see them go.

So now, here we are in Stornoway – where the annual ‘Heb/Celt Festival’ is in full swing – lots of concerts and events we can’t go to – waiting for the wind and Covid to abate - Chris now also has it! Things can only get better!!